Boulder Pass (바위고개) and Before That House (그 집앞) from the 1930s and 40s are songs about remembrance and nostalgia. We are each a being that remembers, living a life defined foremost by time and place, with all major events recorded in our brains, building up one’s unique world over the course of life. And thus comes the poignant, heart tugging nostalgia, the desire to go back, to relive the time that exists only in our heads. Many songs are about this almost reflexive yearning for the past, for someone you had to part with, some place you loved dearly but had to leave behind, and so on. Of these, a yearning for your loved one would be the most precious of all, and these songs depict such a sentiment in the most beautiful way one can imagine.
Before That House
To paraphrase the well known lines, we might say we remember, therefore we exist, or we are what we remember. We are each a bundle of memories, aren’t we. That is why there seem to be an endless array of songs that yearn for that special one in our heart, usually the erstwhile sweetheart one had to part with. It is only natural if we think about it since there really isn’t that much in life apart from the relationships with the loved ones, especially one with that so-called other half of oneself.
In Korea, such pain tinged nostalgia is all the more common owing to her turbulent history in the 20th century. The past century opened with the grim reality where the nation was like a quivering flame before a wind gust (바람 앞의 등불), lost for direction and surrounded by at least four mighty world powers (Japan, China, Russia, the USA) vying to take as big a bite of the country as they can. Korea’s sovereignty was eventually lost to Japan, and it inevitably brought on monumental, life altering changes to everyone. This political and social upheaval caused so much heart rending experience for many, such as being forced to leave one’s long established hometown where they lived for generations for an unfamiliar, faraway place, frequently in a foreign country, which would entail parting with your loved ones while resolving to come back soon, which however very often would never come to pass. Thus so many people ended up carrying in their hearts someone to reunite with and someplace to go back to, be it a real and urgent wish or just remnants of an already dashed hope. It is not surprising at all then that there are so many sad, heartbreaking songs of this sort.
Boulder Pass is one of such tear inducing sad songs. The male narrator is climbing the hill by himself shedding tears, as it is the very place of so much memory for him and his sweetheart, who has now gone away after a decade of separation owing to his conscription to forced labor. While details are not specified, one can imagine what they might have been in light of the actual history. Stories of such forced separation and ensuing heartbreaks were all so commonplace as to be a normal way of life until the mid 20th century.
Sadly, there is nothing this unfortunate person can do other than tearfully holding the azaleas to his heart reminiscing on the one who used to like to pick the same flowers to give him.
Before That House (그 집앞) has a similar theme, if not as explicit. It appears the object of his love, whom either he had to part with or couldn’t even get into a meaningful relationship with, still lives in the same town right on the route he takes all the time. He thus passes before the house where the object of of his yearning lives occasionally. His hankering mind makes him stop there not even thinking, held sway by his subconscious desire, and then he suddenly realizes where he is and hurriedly collects himself and leave so as not to be seen. In the second verse, he is there again on a rainy evening pensively remembering her, he pauses and then resumes his walk counting the raindrops in the light to forget the past. Doesn’t this scene just reach out and grab your heart. I can imagine the pang of sadness that must be gripping him.
These two similar themed songs touch the beautiful and innocent corner of the human heart, depicting the kind of most poignant kind of anecdotes of our past we might cherish inside. Both the words and music are heartbreakingly beautiful in a traditional and understated way. That’s probably why they have been perennial favorites of the Korean people for a long time, enough for one of them to have its own little monument and to be on the textbook.