New Folksong: Shin Minyo of the 1930s
In the 1930s, a new Korean musical genre emerged that was said to represent the sentiment of the people while appealing to popular tastes. Shin minyo, ‘new folksongs’, drew on traditional folksong aesthetics and musical structures but merged these with performance styles of then-contemporary popular music forms. The genre struck a nostalgic chord through the use of traditional folksong style coupled to sentimental lyrics, offering a means of escape from the harsh realities of the colonial period. Past and current discourse has promoted the genre as an indigenous popular music distinct from the imported Japanese enka (named as yuhaengga or tûrot’û in Korea),1 and many scholars discuss it as perhaps Korea’s first true popular music. Although shin minyo has since lost its appeal and is considered to be old people’s music, its relevance to the development of popular music in Korea should not be underestimated. This paper examines shin minyo’s contribution and the precedent it helped set for prevailing ideas regarding both Korean cultural identity and musical sound.
The legacy of shin minyo presents difficulties for scholars of Korean music who wish to determine its contribution to the Korean musical scope. Was it an innocuous blend of tradition and popular culture with its primary virtue resting in its entertainment value, or did it serve as a catalyst to an insurgent Korea on the cusp of emerging as an identifiably distinct culture? Questions such as these are difficult to answer and scholars have different takes on the subject; I will, though, clarify what I consider to be a mystery of contemporary Korean musical development. For years dismissed as unimportant and shallow love songs, recent revisionist literature has hinted at shin minyo’s more subversive nature, and texts in album liner notes and academic works have begun to align shin minyo with early twentieth-century cultural movements. Although far from serving as a political voice of the people, I contend, shin minyo served Korean history as both a source of entertainment and a contributor to the evolution of a distinctive modern culture. Shin minyo remains Korea’s first indigenous pop music; the first attempt at melding foreign influence with domestic aesthetics, distributed through the new-fangled technologies of radio broadcasts and sound recordings.
Shin minyo’s roots can be found in the second part of its appellation, minyo, or traditional folksong. Considered to be music of the common people, folksongs once accompanied work in the fields and at home, at the same time expressing the complex joys and sorrows of peasant life. Folksongs in Korea are typically divided into local (t’osok minyo) and popular (t’ongsok minyo).3 Local songs existed in individual communities and were sung by workers in informal contexts, while popular songs were sung by professionals usually in a more formal context. Both types were shaped by the region from which they came, certain styles of melody, ornamentation and rhythmic patterning being indicative of a particular geographic location.
Korean scholars have defined minyo as songs of the people, anonymously composed, orally transmitted, and unsophisticated, a definition corroborated by many who study traditional music (for example, Ch’oe 2002, Im 1974, Sheen 2001). Sheen Dae-Cheol states that ‘Generally speaking, composers of folk songs are unknown … In Korea, melodies and texts of folk songs have been changed continuously by many hands as they passed through the country’s long history’ (2001: 78). Some scholars, such as Keith Howard, suggest that current scholarship relies on an old definition of folksong put down in print by the International Folk Music Council in 1954.4 Howard states that the Council’s definition influenced Korean definitions but doubts the accuracy of applying such a decidedly European definition to the Korean context: ‘Definitions such as these are Eurocentric and anachronistic, they should be thrown out with the trash. The timeless past is dubious, the lack of conscious composition doubtful’ (2001: 153). Yet, due to the fluid nature of folksong and the multiple variations that have emerged over time, the idea of folksong as a property of the people without an identifiable composer has persisted.
Folksong, and folk music in general, was not a focus of early musical documentation where, for centuries, court culture was at the center of Korean scholarly life. Nonetheless, one aspect of folksong that has consistently been considered essential is its status as a voice of the common people. During the highly stratified Chosôn dynasty (1392-1910), commoners and aristocrats existed in separate realms, but the events of the twentieth century caused social barriers to break down, making the divisions between classes practically irrelevant. It makes sense, then, that folksong would have the most potential as a pre-existing music that could attract a large audience. Folksongs sung by both professionals and workers continued to be performed and, in the 1930s, a new form based on the old, shin minyo, appeared that fulfilled the new need for recorded popular music.
In the 1930s, the popular music broadcast on radio mimicked the melodies and vocal styles of imported music from abroad. Yi Yôngmi contends that popular songs were really western melodies overlaid with Korean lyrics; there was, as yet, no popular music composed by Koreans for Korean audiences (2002: 23). Folksongs, still performed in a variety of contexts, contained much potential for revision and recreation. I suggest that many composers, and record companies, saw folksongs as the perfect foundation from which to create something that was both artistically viable and marketable. The familiarity of the rhythmic patterns would attract a broader audience than the Japanese enka-style songs that were being imported, while the influence of folksong might inspire a change in Korean popular tastes to encompass something beyond the imitation of foreign styles.
The primary distinction between folksongs and shin minyo rests in the definition of folksongs as an unchanging, archaic expression of traditional life. Shin minyo, on the other hand, combine western and Korean features, usually a Korean folk melody paired with western instrumentation.5 Western instruments served as the dynamic part of this musical duality, responsible for a new sound indicative of then-contemporary life, while composers borrowed the melodic and rhythmic structures of folksongs.6 Ch’oe Ch’angho (2000) states that shin minyo existed in their active entirety between the 1920s and the 1940s, although the term itself was not used until the 1930s. He contends that, while shin minyo were quite distinct from other popular songs, they were and are still often confused with popular music from the Japanese colonial era. Hence, they tend to be grouped with the enka-inspired yuhaengga of the time, or are excluded all together. Yet, they deserve more recognition, as songs from a pioneering genre. Ch’oe defines shin minyo as newly created folksongs that met the tastes of contemporary times while incorporating older folksongs, developed because record companies decided there was a need for folk music possessing artistic elegance (2000: 33). Shin minyo, though, were not a mere combination of Korean sensibility and western musical aesthetic, even if the singing style and instrumentation may have betrayed western influence, since the complex rhythms gave hints of their Korean origins (Maliangkay 2002) and melodic contours were indicative of distinct regional folksongs.
Faced with the task of labeling this genre, there appears to have been a consensus that the term shin minyo would be most appropriate, but there is little agreement as to how or when this actually occurred. According to Ch’oe, Polydor (P’orit’ol) Records was the first company to apply the term shin minyo, a move that inspired others to follow (2000: 33). Polydor worked to record the first shin minyo, but after artistic disagreements and difficulties the collaborative effort, ‘Nodûl kangbyôn/Nodûl Riverside’, was eventually released on OK Records. This recording proved popular and a second edition was released to meet demand. In contrast, the popular music scholar Yi Kônt’ae states that the term shin minyo was coined in 1931 in the Korean Daily News (Chosôn ilbo) with an announcement for the first presentation of shin minyo on a Columbia Records release. This release consisted of songs composed by Hong Nanp’a (1898-1941) titled ‘Pangatchinûn saekshi norae/Song of a Girl Grinding Flour’ and ‘Noksûn karakch’i/Ring Finger Song’,7 both of which remain landmark recordings of Korean popular music. Yi contends that, beginning in 1934, Columbia, as well as Victor and OK Records, heavily promoted the genres of folksong, shin minyo, and yuhaengga. Regardless of the exact point of origin, shin minyo quickly gained popularity in these turbulent times because their themes were adjusted to fit contemporary sensibilities while the familiar, nostalgic tunes appealed to the growing population.
In the collaborative volume on popular music during the Japanese colonial period written by Kim Kwanghae, Yun Yôt’ak, and Kim Mansu, a critical literature approach is adopted. The authors examine the occurrence of words such as ‘tears’ (nunmul) and ‘hometown’ (kohyang) in lyrics to assess prevalent themes which, they believe, provide a window into lifestyles of the time. In addition, by examining shifts in themes from the 1930s on, and considering themes before then, they attempt to reveal how popular music developed. The themes in popular songs can be divided between dark/sorrowful and light/romantic. Often, shin minyo themes concerned romantic love and were lighter than those of yuhaengga, a genre that can also trace its beginnings back to a similar date. Yi Yôngmi emphasizes that yuhaengga, which she calls tûrot’û, were infinitely darker and ‘the saddest, most heart rending music for people who lived during the occupation’ (2002: 26), and states that ‘if you don’t understand tûrot’û you cannot understand the occupation period’. Nonetheless, shin minyo addressed the concerns of the time as well, including themes of alienation, grief and the desire for freedom.
To gain an understanding of how shin minyo or any musical form can hold such significance for Koreans, especially those who lived through the occupation period, one must first take a look at the historical circumstances leading to the genre’s inception. Korea, for centuries a dynastic society with a long and proud history of more than four thousand years,9 has over the past century been part of a rapidly change world. Korea opened up to international trade towards the end of the nineteenth century, and it was then that western music began to permeate into Korean society through the hymns of missionaries and western classical music. The annexation of Korea by Japan, first as a protectorate in 1904 then as a colony in 1910, ended a period of 1,000 years of largely independent rule and severely limited Korean cultural freedom to the extent that, at one point in the late 1930s, the Korean language itself was forbidden. As Bruce Cumings puts it, Korean culture ‘was simply squashed’ (1997: 182), and Japanese policies restricted native artistic practice. Sheen Dae-Cheol blames the imported Japanese education system for creating an irretrievable gap between Koreans and their culture. In respect to music, he states: For a long time, our music has been a hidden treasure the value of which has been forgotten. As it is, there is no place for it in modern times. Therefore, listening and enjoying it is difficult, resulting in the music being treated as a bygone legacy. Our music has become outdated music, inappropriate to the ever-changing times heading toward the twenty-first century. That is, our music, made for people of long ago, has become unsuitable to the ears and sensibilities of modern people (1993: 157).
With the goal of imperial subjugation of those under its control, Korea suffered 35 years of Japanese cultural, political and military dominance. To use Handler’s (1988) term, ‘cultural objectification’ intensified as Koreans were faced with cultural and political oppression through annexation and forced participation in the global economy.10 Japanese scholars debunked Korean mythological and folk history, and the policy of cultural assimilation meant that projects were sponsored that sought to undermine Korean cultural institutions. In response, and despite limited cultural freedom, Korean scholars in a loosely grouped cultural movement (munhwa undong) looked to their own culture for evidence that the Japanese claims were untrue, forming the roots for contemporary Korean nationalism. Some contend that shin minyo complimented the cultural movement by providing a forum for expression of dissatisfaction with the then-current circumstances, coupled to hope for a brighter future. Certainly, scholarly activities inspired a renewed awareness of folk culture as a forum for personal and cultural expression, and songs such as ‘Arirang’ became symbolic of the struggle.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, developments opened Korea to the world of global trade and international relations. The world entered an era in which cultural products became central to this integrity, helping to define boundaries — containing what Benedict Anderson (1983) defines as ‘imagined communities’ unified through print media — that separated ‘us’ from ‘others’. Objects, tangible or intangible, served to embody social values and stand as symbols of cultural ideals. Objects became part of dominant nationalist discourses.
Music stands as an intangible object that signifies a cultural core, and its character represents the same concepts as are symbolized in architecture, the national flag, and cuisine. Music works as a forum in which desired standards of social order are expressed, connecting people through what Sue Tuohy has referred to as a ‘national soundtrack’. She states, ‘Musical forms act as symbolic expressions of order and musical performances as active means of organizing people, drawing upon widespread beliefs that music can stir as well as depict emotions, can create as well as represent community’ (2001: 109). In South Korea, popular sentiment is played out in music that taps into the old or the familiar, giving the impression of a natural expression of community values. The Korean national soundtrack is forged through a combination of extra-musical ideas and what Bakhtin terms ‘living discourse’(1988). Embedded in the context of everyday life, the soundtrack is formed through Korea’s past, present, and future. Popular music genres are often dismissed as contributors to this soundtrack, primarily, I believe, because of their position as popular rather than traditional. In recent decades, traditional music has become a symbol of Korean culture to a greater extent than popular music has. Yet, I believe that shin minyo, especially, made it plausible for a popular music genre to represent Korean cultural values and aesthetics.
Some scholars argue that shin minyo provided an artistic forum through which to express a burgeoning nationalistic fervour. In the liner notes to a 1995 CD compilation, 30 nyôndae shin minyo (Shin minyo from the 1930s; SRCD-1232), Yi Kûnt’ae cites an influential article as forever placing shin minyo in this representative position. He states, ‘On 6 February 1938, a journalist writing in an esteemed publication proclaimed that shin minyo stood out from the deluge of popular song as a music that existed for the purpose of expressing the public’s sentiment’. From then on, he says, shin minyo were promulgated for this purpose. Korean sentiment, or chôngsô, is difficult to define. It is bound to Korean history and cultural assumptions. It resides in elements considered by Koreans essential to Korean character, elements that include chông (emotional or psychological affection), inyôn (a priori relations), hûng (excitement), and han (deep sorrow or resentment). Writings by scholars such as Kim Chip’yông play on these concepts, promoting shin minyo as expressing an amalgamation of essential cultural sentiment. The lyrics and music of ‘Amuryôm kûrôch’i/Of Course You’re Right’ provide an excellent example. The song opens with a man describing a woman crying into the sleeve of the jacket of her Korean costume (hanbok) as she holds a rice pot. He says, ‘Tears streaming down your face were messing up your makeup, yet now you are smiling. See, I told you not to worry.’ The woman’s suffering could be interpreted as an expression of han, since many Koreans (mostly women) have told me that women especially suffer in this way. The imagery used connects the listener to a visual cultural reference, while the music contains rhythmic patterns, melodic phrases and instruments from traditional folksongs. The sounds and imagery strongly communicate Korean sentiment to cultural insiders.
Whether or not a shin minyo movement ever existed or played a significant part in the cultural politics of the time is debatable, but to Kim Chip’yông shin minyo impacted society as more than mere entertainment. According to him:
"The so-called ‘shin minyo effort’ was an effort to rescue the people’s sentiment through song. Originally, folksongs had no composer or lyricist, strongly incorporating the people’s fundamental spirit (pat’ang chôngshin) through orally transmitted song. Thus, the saying, ‘If you want to learn about a country, then you should know the people’s folksong’. Coming from the heart of popular song (kayo) with the distinctive qualities of folksong, our people’s essential emotions took a variety of shapes in shin minyo. The ‘shin minyo effort’ was both a rediscovery of the people’s sentiment and a reawakening of their spirit (2000: 90). "
It is beyond doubt that the occupation inspired a revolutionary spirit, witnessed in such mediums as poetry and films, and it is also apparent that shin minyo became an important part of Koreans’ lives during this period.
Much can be read into songs that express a longing for one’s hometown or the mountains. Such sentiments can be interpreted as desires to escape the cruelty of the occupation. One song, ‘Nae kohyangûl ibyôlhago/Farewell To My Hometown’, tells of a person who has left their hometown to live elsewhere, using words such as ‘suffocating’ and ‘lonely’ to describe their mood. From their perspective, as we hear the song, the hometown becomes a distant, idealized place that is missed. Individual and family displacement during the occupation can be associated with this feeling of alienation from one’s identity so firmly rooted in the hometown, and many who heard the song would have related to its theme during a time of tremendous social and cultural upheaval. Kim considers that the ‘shin minyo effort’ was entwined with abstract concepts such as the people’s sentiment or spirit, with song themes that spoke of hardship. Songs such as ‘Pom mach’i/Greeting the Spring’, he says, used metaphor to express emotions that were often-suppressed: winter (kyôul) refers to the occupation and the melting of ice to its ending, spring (pom) stands for Korean liberation (Kim 2000: 91). The song, composed by Mun Howôl with lyrics by Yu Sôkchung, was recorded in 1934 by Yi Nanyông/ Yi Nan-Young:
The ice melts and the water rushes
As the water flows winter passes away
Let’s go out and greet the spring.
At the riverside a weeping willow
Drooping with a silly snicker
Writes a spring letter in the rushing water
Let’s go for it and greet the spring.
A pair of swallows kick up water
While flying in fast
Let’s go for it and greet the spring.
(1992: SYNCD-016; my translation)
Subtle and not so subtle references to the occupation were not uncommon. In the third verse of ‘Nodûl kangbyôn/Nodûl Riverside’, an explicit reference to the occupation’s hardships appears, when the wasted lives of those who have been displaced and those who have died is mentioned. Ch’oe Ch’angho comments that ‘The melody, through a combination of popular and [traditional] rhythms that anyone could easily recognize, reeks of a unique national spirit. Moreover, in the third verse feelings of resistance flow that oppose the hardships and misery put on our countrymen for which the Japanese occupation is the root’ (2000: 34). The expression of Korean sentiment emerges from the mixture of lyrical reference, musical allusion and historical context.
The lyrical imagery and the instruments used provide listeners with clues of the music’s identity, but the performer’s vocal style is similar to that of other popular genres of the time. The vocal styles of folksongs were dependant on the region, singers of central Kyônggi minyo using a slightly nasal vocalization with elaborate ornamentation and singers of southwestern Namdo minyo utilizing more earthy and emotional voices. Despite these stylistic differences, the strong and rich vocal qualities of traditional folksongs stand out against the rather thin and weak vocal quality of popular singers in the 1930s, from which shin minyo singers differed little. Very few singers actually specialized in shin minyo, with only a handful known as shin minyo performers; many also recorded songs in other genres. They became associated with the genre when a song they recorded became a hit. For example, Kim Yonghwan, a singer who began his career on stage, recorded ‘Sum swinûn pudu/Living (or Thriving) Wharf’ in 1933, and after that wrote and sang several songs classed within the shin minyo category. Kim Pokhûi worked for Victor Records and others, but with the recording of ‘Paektusan agassi/Paektu Mountain Girl’ became quite a star. Yi Kyunam recorded many ‘new popular songs’ (shin kayo) for Columbia into the 1940s.11 Sôn Uilsôn worked for Polydor, Victor, and T’aep’yông Records, recording one of the earliest songs labeled as shin minyo, ‘Kkoch’ûl chapk’o/With Flowers in Hand’ for Polydor. Yi Aerosu (also known as Yi Aerisu) worked with Victor Records and is known for singing ‘Nim maji kaja/[Let’s] Go Meet [My] Love’. Wang Subok (Wang Sôngshil) was trained in the singing of literati songs (kasa and shijo) and recorded with Columbia and Polydor records, becoming known as a shin minyo singer when she recorded ‘Ulji marayo/Don’t Cry’ although she also performed more traditional folksongs such as ‘Nilliriya’ and ‘Kin arirang’. Amongst these, Wang was the exception: Ch’oe Ch’angho remarks that folksong singers distanced themselves from shin minyo performance, feeling uncomfortable with what they considered to be a musical hodgepodge (2000:53). Their discomfort may have been coloured by their distaste for performing music that was not pure folksong, but their absence from the ranks of those who sang shin minyo contributed, Ch’oe says, to the decline of the shin minyo genre.
Shin minyo was a phenomenon of its time. The attraction it had for audiences of the 1930s made it this, but also contributed to its stagnation. For scholars, the difficulty of examining shin minyo is that there is no clearly defined account of it. There were, even within the recording companies, no organizations of composers or management associations. As Ch’oe notes, its seemingly spontaneous appearance leaves little evidence of a solid existence (2000: 52), and the lack of information plays a part in disrupting the potential momentum of shin minyo as a part of Korean popular culture. The most significant factor is that the genre could not reach its full potential in the world; it was lost in the shuffle, disdained by traditional folksong performers and lost to the popular appeal of yuhaengga. In short, shin minyo failed to thrive in the rapidly developing context of Korea. Hence, when I ask my Korean contemporaries about shin minyo, many turn up their noses and say: ‘That’s old people’s music’. The majority of Koreans I’ve spoken to know little about the genre, but all associate it with the occupation era.
Shin minyo, though, is also a phenomenon of contemporary Korea, a Korea emerging from Third World economy to international player, from feudalism to democracy. While it fell out of favour and fashion, it remains relevant for three reasons. First is its status as a pioneering popular music, along with other genres of its time, setting the stage for the burgeoning Korean recording industry. One can almost see shin minyo as a marketing experiment, since it was one of the first recorded conscious attempts at creating and promoting a Korean, albeit hybrid, musical genre. Second is the emphasis on shin minyo’s extra-musical character: some contend it not only served as a representation of the Korean spirit but also provided a forum for meaningful cultural expression. Third, while shin minyo may have lost its place as a favourite among the listening public, it remains one of the original efforts at revising an old music to fit contemporary tastes. Not until the 1960s was another attempt mounted to revise traditional forms and emphasize Korean music’s communicative value for the Korean spirit.
Scholarly debates have raged for some time regarding the indigenous character of popular music. If a folksong style is merged with enka-inspired vocals or western instrumentation, can it be Korean? While it is not my focus in this paper to argue the Koreanness of shin minyo, I believe that, due to the rhetorical and musical efforts at creating it as an expression of Korean cultural identity, one can argue it to be Korea’s first indigenous pop. Popular music, by nature, is designed to reach the widest audience possible, attracting the audience through its use of tunes, rhythms or lyrics. Scholars of shin minyo have attested to the fact that people created the genre to answer a need for a music to which Koreans of the time could relate. Folksongs had long been associated with the common people and, thus, the general population. Assigning the term ‘new’ (shin) to ‘folksong’ (minyo) indicated a new expression that reflected changing times, yet one to which many could relate.
Perhaps more important than the composers, singers, or the songs themselves, the language used to describe and promote it marked a clear effort at defining the genre
1 See Gloria Lee Pak (this volume) for a discussion on whether yuhaengga were a Korean creation.
2 The term shin minyo existed in Japan prior to its widespread use in Korea. There, as in Korea, it referred to refurbished compositions based on folk song. Some of these were used in schools as an educational tool for children. David Hughes refers to shin minyo created as factory songs to keep up the spirits of the (women) workers. The first song was created in 1921, according to Hughes (1985: 144). I am unaware of any direct connection between Japanese and Korean shin minyo outside of the name.
3 Other terms also apply. See Howard (1999) for a discussion.
4 See Elbourne (1976) for a discussion of this definition.
5 Sheen Dae-Cheol contends that shin minyo exist ‘as a product of imported western culture’ and were influenced by the mass-marketed big band music of the time (2001: 79). He compares this idea, which he considers most plausible, to those given by other scholars that include Japanese influence, patriotic composers, and sung love stories as major moneymakers. Roald Maliangkay asserts shin minyo represent more than cultural imperialism; rather, they are a response to rapid cultural change. He notes that, despite the incorporation of western instrumentation and melodies, they maintain the compound rhythmic structure of traditional folksongs (2002: 1478).
6 Here, I am reminded of the later conscious efforts made by composers, beginning in the 1960s, to use older musical forms as inspiration for creating a new national music. See Chae (1996) and Chun (1975)
7 This title refers to a ring on the finger that would have lasted and stayed beautiful if the ring were of good quality in the first place. A selection of shin minyo have been reissued on CD: Yusônggiro
as Korean. As Ch’oe (2000: 33) suggests, the creators of shin minyo purposefully aligned the songs with familiar Korean themes and music, making explicit references to the occupation and to Korean identity, and forging a path for future music that could express cultural sentiment. While the popularity of shin minyo faded with the end of the occupation, shin minyo remains closely associated with such rhetorical constructions. This type of rhetoric has gained momentum in recent years with the rise in contemporary assumptions concerning the relationship between Korean music and cultural identity. Most importantly, shin minyo occupies an essential spot in Korea’s national soundtrack. Although not appreciated by practitioners of traditional folk music, its emergence demonstrated that a hybrid form could be Korean. Today, many Koreans may chuckle at the rather dated sound of shin minyo, but we cannot doubt its centrality to the early development of Korean popular music. tûtto[diacritical]n kayosa 1925-1945 [Popular song history as heard through the phonograph 1925-1945] (Synnara SYNCD-015 and SYNCD-016, 1992).
8 Yi (2000:78) notes that the term shin minyo was not used after the 1970s, when it was replaced by the term kugak kayo (Korean music popular song).
9 Koreans routinely claim a history of five thousand years; this is dated from the legendary Tan’gun’s ascension to the throne in 2333 B.C.E.
10 For more information on academic and cultural reactions to Japanese oppression and cultural nationalism, see Roger Janelli (1986) and Michael Robinson (1988, 1996). Robinson, incidentally, glosses the munhwa undong grouping as ‘cultural nationalists’.
11 The distinction between shin kayo and shin minyo is not clear; both terms appear to imply the same style of song.
12 Many of the folksongs considered to be traditional are actually relatively new, as Yi Pohyông argues (1997). However, this engages arguments concerning longevity and original forms that would form the basis for an altogether separate paper. My understanding is that songs known to have been passed down orally took on the status of ‘traditional’, while songs with an easily identifiable composer did not.