The intertwined history of three American folk songs, 4.3, and the struggle for peace in Gangjeong Village
By: Seth Martin
Note: This article was originally published at Seth's blog, Over the Mountains there are Mountains.
Farther along, we’ll understand why…”
Today is 4.3, the day when Jeju Islanders gather each year to remember the brutal genocide of their people under post-Japan, US-South Korean leadership, when right-wing youth squads were used to suppress supposed “reds” and communist sympathizers. The end result was a devastated island, with tens of thousands of villagers fleeing to Japan to survive, and between 30,000 and 60,000 innocent villagers slaughtered, either in their homes or after being found hiding in mountain caves.
“No special pleading about the exigencies of wartime will suffice to assuage the American conscience,” writes historian Bruce Cumings in his book, The Korean War. “What the formerly classified American materials document is a merciless, wholesale assault on the people of this island.”
In almost every village memorials to the slain can be seen. The ghosts are not quiet on Jeju. And the living have not forgotten.
In recent years, the South Korean government proudly took part in renaming Jeju “The Island of Peace” as a way of recognizing the terrible heartbreak of Jeju and also to honor the people’s strong efforts to stop future war and violence.
Shortly after, the construction of a massive, joint US-ROK naval base began in Gangjeong Village, despite the vigorous protests of nearly all villagers to both the illegal start of the project and the base itself.
There are many threads from 4.3 to Gangjeong.
This week, after several years of fighting, hundreds of villager and activist arrests, and countless illegal maneuvers by the military and base contractors, the new naval base celebrated its grand opening. The existence of the base is seen as an affront to the villagers’ freedom and dignity, and proof to many that US/ROK statements about peace and Jeju’s autonomy are lies. Villagers and activists are experiencing Gangjeong Village’s transformation, despite their struggle, into a new front line for a potential world war.
Here is a song about this struggle. And below the lyrics is a story of where the song came from as well as how its musical roots are intertwined with the current struggle for peace in Gangjeong, which goes back much farther than the illegal start of the base construction.
I wrote this song after having spent significant time in Gangjeong on several occasions since 2012. The people of Gangjeong are some of the bravest and kindest folks I have ever met. I can’t help but ask myself, while thinking about and supporting their struggle, if I would find the courage to stand up to such a monster should it ever be in the interest of the US government to turn my hometown of 700 people, farmland and river beds into a war machine
Gureumbi Norae (Gureombi Song)/ I’ve Got to Know Now
By Seth Martin
The current struggle for autonomy and peace in Gangjeong is woven thickly into a fabric of history heavy with sadness, oppression, violence, and the brave resistance to injustice by commoners in the face of unspeakable hurt and loss.
Though in a very different context and not directly connected to the collective experience of genocide and a smothering of history by the guilty parties, the history of this song is woven into a fabric of struggle for dignity and hope amidst seemingly insurmountable odds. And it has many connections with, and has served as a disgruntled yet dignified response to, the absurd hubris and violence of American Expansionism and Empire, in its religious and political forms, at home and elsewhere, including Korea.
“Gureombi Norae” is an update of Woody Guthrie’s I’ve Got to Know, written during the Korean War, using the tune for Farther Along.
1. “Farther Along”
A hymn for the suffering, Farther Along has been a popular tune with folk and root singers for generations. It acknowledges that things are hard, and that we sometimes can’t find an explanation for the absurd injustices and disproportionate loads of struggle heaped on the poor. And it promises a better future, when “we’ll understand it, oh bye and bye.”
2. “I’ve Got to Know”
But Guthrie, sick and dying as he read the reports of the US bombing innocent farmers in Korea, was no longer content with this line of thinking, so often used by those in power to keep the rest of the suffering under their boot heels.
For himself—a poor Okie and soldier-turned-populist song stealer and sharer, on his deathbed—and for the world, Guthrie was no longer content to “understand why” the rich and wicked got away with everything and the innocent suffered, “oh bye and bye”. He had no more time, and he wrote one of his starkest songs. We’d understand it “farther along”, the older hymn promised. But Woody, along with all those suffering, wanted to know “why” now. And he wanted the injustice to stop. “I’ve got to know, friend,” he demanded. “Hungry lips ask me wherever I go.”
Later, American Korean War veteran-turned-anarchist-folksinger Utah Phillips updated the lyrics to meet many of the injustices of his own times, the 1970s through early 2000s.
I have used the same melody along with Woody’s chorus, and new verses, to talk about the struggle on Jeju Island (Korea), where the people of Gangjeong Village have been struggling to save their lives, history and homeland in the face of illegal US/Korean naval base construction.
The farmers have faced severe violence, silenced or skewed press coverage, and hundreds of arrests from government/business forces for trying to save their home. A few weeks ago the base celebrated its completion with great fanfare. Within the walls, workers, soldiers, and their families can enjoy playing together in the massive sport facilities, go shopping in the growing assortment of available shops, and worship and pray for peace and good fortune according to their hearts’ prompting—alone or in one of the beautiful new Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant buildings constructed for those on the inside.
Meanwhile much of Gureombi, a sacred rocky place near the water where people have rested and enjoyed meals and memories together for centuries, has been dynamited and flattened to serve as base ground.
And this past week, just days after the base’s grand opening, contractors and base personnel lost no time in dealing a hammer blow to the villagers and what is left of the peace movement in Gangjeong: the villagers and activists of Gangjeong are being charged millions of dollars for their crime in recent months and years of delaying the base’s completion. They are being charged for the money lost in missed deadlines for the base construction. They are being fined an astronomical sum that they cannot pay—punishment for trying to save their village from an illegal operation that has already transformed Gangjeong from a small and peaceful fishing and farming village to one of the newest and most important military-industrial points in the aggressive US Asia Pivot Policy. Gangjeong is now a weapons holding station, waiting and ready to attack China or North Korea if or when they act in any way deemed threatening to US military and economic control of the SE Asia region.
But the people fight on, and demand to know “why”—and they demand to know “now.”
Seth Martin is a folksinger from Toledo, Washington. He now lives with his partner in Korea.
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