Lee Chung-myun, a professor emeritus at the University of Utah, says the Korean folk song "Arirang" has spread around the world in various guises. Lee recently published "Arirang: Song of Korea," a book detailing the origin of the song. A graduate of Seoul National University in geography education with a PhD from the University of Michigan, he taught at the University of Utah from 1972 to 2002.
"While collecting data to write a book on Arirang, I discovered that the song had already spread throughout the world, including the U.S." he says. He showed a lullaby music sheet that describes "Arirang" as a song mothers used to sing to their sick children as well as its Korean origin. The lyrics and arrangement were by Malcolm Sargent, the former BBC symphony orchestra conductor and composer. "Sargent seems to have either visited Korea while touring Northeast Asia during the 1960s or heard Arirang through some other sources."
Lee also found "Arirang" included in a hymnal published by the American United Presbyterian Church in 1990, under the name "Christ, You Are the Fullness." The lyrics were composed by Bert Polman, a professor of music at Calvin College in Michigan. Asked why he included it, Polman said it was the simple beauty of the tune that drew him.
Lee credits missionaries like Homer Hulbert, Horace Allen and Isabella Bishop with the introduction of "Arirang" into western culture. He explains that the song was further spread throughout the world by UN soldiers who came to Korea during the Korean War. Pete Seeger, the prominent protest singer, included "Arirang" as an antiwar song in his first live album in 1964.
Lee published "A Geographer's Arirang Journey" in 2007, after traveling through Jeongseon, Jindo Island, and Milyang in Korea where the song originated. Since publication, he has been working on an English-language book.
"'Airang' is a song that cures nostalgia for home and loneliness from a long life abroad," Lee says. "It is up to human geography to study 'Arirang,' the essence of the traditional Korean culture."