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Sijo-based songs

#Sounds of Korea l 2023-05-11

Sounds of Korea

Sijo-based songs

Welcome to “Sounds of Korea” on KBS WORLD Radio. This traditional music program invites you to deepen your understanding about Korean traditional music by taking a closer look at various music-related topics every week. Today, we’ll talk about traditional songs based on sijo poems. I’m your host ________. Please stay tuned, I’ll be back shortly.  

Sijo is a form of Korean poetry with a fixed form. A sijo poem is comprised of only three lines, each one consisting of fifteen letters. So, the entire poem comes to more or less 45 letters. This very short poem describes one’s sentiments and natural scenery in distilled expressions. 

But it is an artist’s nature to break out of the mold, so sijo poems grew longer, telling more stories. “Pyeongsijo평시조” refers to a sijo poem written in the original form and “saseolsijo사설시조” written with longer narratives. 

Originally, sijo was not a poem but lyrics to a song. People put words to a certain melody, which turned into a sijo. Initially, a pyeongsijo was sung in a slow, relaxed manner. But when people tried to sing a saseolsijo to the form of a pyeongsijo, the lyrics to a saseolsijo had to be crammed into the confined format of a pyeongsijo, rendering the song fast-paced and cheerful. Today’s first piece is a saseoljireumsijo사설지름시조 entitled “In the Green Mountain” sung by Lee Jun-ah. 

Saseoljireumsijo “Within the Green Mountain”/ Sung by Lee Jun-ah

The ‘saseol’ in saseoljireumsijo means that the lyrics are long and the term ‘jireum’ indicates that the opening part of the song is sung in a loud voice. Pyeongsijo is sung in an even tone, neither too loud nor too soft. But you probably heard the first part of “In the Green Mountain” sung in a very high, loud tone. 

The song begins with a depiction of a hunter with a shotgun wandering in the green mountain. When the hunter is asked not to shoot a wild goose that cries in loneliness after losing its mate, the hunter answers that he isn’t so heartless that he would hunt such a pitiful creature no matter how rough and unlearned he is. 

As pyeongsijo is changed into saseolsijo, sijo songs increasingly became more cheerful and satirical, gradually shedding their lyrical vibe. Some of the sijo songs came to resemble folksongs. For instance, “Nanbongga난봉가” gained a new title of “Saseolnanbongga사설난봉가,” the words to which go as follows. 

My loved one who leaves me behind would suffer footsore before he travels ten li, would encounter robbers before he travels twenty li, and would come back to me before he travels thirty li.

The oldest girl of my neighbor is getting married, but the young man of my other neighbor has gone out to hang himself. Losing a life is not sad, but the rope is certain to go to waste. 

The lyrics sound rather insensitive, seemingly making fun of a young man’s heartbreak and impending suicide, but this song is satirizing the pain of breaking up and finding some humor in the whole situation. Here’s Kim Young-im singing “Saseolnanbongga.”

Saseolnanbongga/ Sung by Kim Young-im

Folksongs do not usually have definite composers or origins. Anyone can put his or her heartfelt story to a tune, which becomes a folksong over a long period of time as the melody and lyrics become fixed. However, an artist can imprint his distinct personality on a song by giving little variations to the song. 

Such changes can seem quite drastic to some people. For instance, “Saseolnanbongga” you listened to earlier was arranged into a pop song by fusion vocalist Lee Hee-moon. Lee’s “Saseolnanbong사설난봉” has the same narrative and melody as the original “Saseolnanbongga” but its vibe is completely different. For some older audiences, it may not even sound like a traditional song, but the younger generation may like Lee’s version more than the traditional one. Today’s Sounds of Korea will conclude with Lee Hee-moon singing “Saseolnanbong.”

Saseolnanbong/ Sung by Lee Hee-moon

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