Korean Folksong 1: Arirang

1) Original Performance: 

“아리랑 아리랑 홀로 아리랑

아리랑 고개를 넘어가보자

가다가 힘들면 쉬어가더라도

손잡고 가보자 같이 가보자”


“a-ri-rang a-ri-rang hol-lo a-ri-rang

ari-rang go-gae-reul nuh-muh gan-da

Ga-da-ga him-deul-myun shee-uh-ga-duh-ra-do

Son jab-go ga bo-ja ga-chee ga bo-ja”

Full Translation (Literal / Dynamic): 

“arirang arirang arirang alone

Let’s go beyond the arirang pass

Even if we rest and go because we’re tired from the journey

Let’s hold hands and go, let’s go together”

2) The informant is my grandmother, a Korean who immigrated to the US in the 1970s. My grandmother said that this song is a folk song that “every Korean knows.” She claims she heard it being played outside early in elementary school. She shared it with me because she said she wishes even her family who lives in America could try and understand some of the sentiments Korean’s attach to this song.

3) This was performed after my family came back from a hike during spring break and I asked if my grandmother had any famous folk songs she knew. She said Arirang is the most well-known and has multiple lyrical forms, but that she would share the one she knows.

4) In hearing this song, I’m led to make connections with a theme of Korea’s “suffering yet overcoming” throughout its history. The size of its land was always being altered due to invasions by China, it was colonized during the early 20th century by Japan, yet fought and gained independence, and it was split into North and South during the Korean War, a proxy war of the Cold War. Although different versions have different lyrics, the idea of suffering combined with a brilliant hope and resilience for a better future is echoed in nearly all renditions. This type of history could be what has both initiated and sustained the oral tradition of Arirang throughout generations. The lyrics of two people remaining together in a journey despite all odds has often been tied to a metaphor for the longing of Koreans to remain together despite obstacles like Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and a constant state of diaspora. 

Annotation: For a fuller version of the song, go to UNESCO’s webpage which is dedicated to Arirang and Korean cultural heritage: 

“Arirang, Lyrical Folk Song in the Republic of Korea.” UNESCO, Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2012, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/arirang-lyrical-folk-song-in-the-republic-of-korea-00445.