Thinking of Older Brother (오빠 생각) and an Isle Home Baby (섬집 아기) are sparkling gems of Korean children’s songs. They feature those universally loved qualities we find in the hearts of children as they set out on their journey in this world . They have the innocence and purity of heart we once had before the endlessly complex forces of life have shaped each of us into another ambivalent, mottled being that we can no longer marvel at. Perennially popular, these beautiful songs are there to give the children unsullied wholesome fun in their formative years, creating a warm, fuzzy corner in their young hearts which will serve as a source of nostalgic longing they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
Thinking of Older Brother
An Isle Home Baby
Thinking of Older Brother (오빠 생각) is a poignant song in many ways. The lyrics were written in 1925 by a twelve year old girl named Choi Soon Ae (최순애), the music by Park Tae Jun (박태준, 1900 - 1986), a major composer in the past century. Choi’s little poem was submitted for listing in the pioneering children’s magazine Kids (어린이) which was published by the children’s story author Bang Jeong Hwan (방정환, 1899 - 1931), all of which were stuff history is made of. Choi had a brother much older than her who had gone off to join the activists in the enlightenment movement that sought to change the destiny of the nation through education and enlightenment of the people. It seems he took part in clandestine activities going against the Japanese authorities, thus ending up as a fugitive unable to come back to his home in Suwon situated south of Seoul. Young Choi was therefore always in the wait for her older brother, wondering about his whereabouts, safety and well being. This childlike and beautifully rhythmical poem came out of this historical backdrop of uncertainty and hardship.
The last lines Still there is no news from my brother in Seoul, only the swishes and rustles of falling leaves so beautifully juxtaposes the forlorn landscape with the concerned heart of a little innocent girl. Choi later met Lee Won Su (이원수) who wrote the lyrics of Spring of My Old Home (고향의 봄), possibly the best loved Korean children’s song, and eventually married him, which is another interesting anecdote of history.
The lyrics are truly remarkable. They conjure up the earthy names and calling sounds of many birds in the countryside, those down-home and folksy words that are intertwined with the roots of the people, or the soul of the nation as it were. It has the guileless girl longing for her brother, remembering the promise he made as he left, as well as the looming disappointment with the rustling leaves and the sad sounds of chirping crickets in the nights of late autumn. This wistful yearning in a child’s tender heart and the poignancy it brings are complemented by the melody, which is melancholy yet uplifting, to create a work firmly connected to the mother earth. It can move people in ways the term “children’s song” doesn’t even begin to convey. I doubt I have ever known any song for children which is imbued with such an exceedingly beautiful language and sentiment.
An Isle Home Baby (섬집 아기) is another immensely popular one for children. Its lyrics are by the little known Hahn In Hyun (한인현) who wrote it during the Korean war (1950-1953), and the music is by Lee Hung Ryul (이흥렬, 1909 - 1980), a renowned composer. The song is an endearing little piece about a little baby and its mother. The mother goes off to pick oysters leaving the baby at home, and the baby falls asleep in peace listening to the lullaby played by the crashing waves. Then in the second verse mother suddenly becomes worried hearing the squawks of the seagulls, takes her half empty oyster basket and hurries home across the patch of sand. A simple song perhaps, yet it portrays the scene of the baby and mother, as well as the idyllic scene of a cottage on a small island, the old ways of life like oyster picking, the peace and perpetuity of the crashing waves and all.
Plus, the music is very soothing too. It is a fairly monotonous and unambitious tune but goes very well with the lyrics. The combination of the lyrics and the tune makes for such a precious little gem that there was even a report that it topped a favorite children’s song survey in the 90s. I also personally remember this song in my fourth grade music text book, and how some of my buddies liked it. And then there are the professional singers who always seem to include this little number in their children’s song compilations - I know at least three top notch singers who have done so. Its YouTube pages seem to be popular as well, with comments from mothers who say they use it as a lullaby for their babies. All in all, an unlikely little gem.