It well embodies the sentiments of people in mountainous areas. People in Jeongseon have reflected the hardness and loneliness of their daily lives in the lyrics of “Jeongseon Arirang” since long ago. They consoled themselves against the sorrows of living deep in the mountains, the burdens of married life in the homes of parents-in-law, resentment toward or longing for young or old husbands, and other agonies of life with the song's mellow melody and its satire and humor.
“Jeongseon Arirang” is divided into “Gin Arirang” (“long Arirang”) and “Yeokkeum Arirang” (“compiled Arirang”). “Gin Arirang” is sung slowly and has long notes. Sometimes it is sung a little bit fast like “Jajin Arirang” (“fast Arirang”), but the general structure of “Jeongseon Arirang” is “Gin Arirang.”
Will it rain or snow or will a long spell of heavy rain begin?
A thin mist hangs at the foot of Bibongsan Mountain
Arirang Arirang Arariyo
Let me cross over Arirang Pass
The lyrics of “Jeongseon Arirang” are mostly about oneself and the circumstances of one's life such as love and longing between a man and woman and the rigors and sorrows of married life. When sung by one person, it is sung so slowly that it generates mournful feelings. When sung by several persons in turn, however, humorous and raw lyrics are sung merrily in fast-beat melodic lines. People would sing “Yeokkeum Arirang” to express the hard feelings about life that are too numerous to all be expressed in “Gin Arirang.”
Whether my husband is handsome or ugly
Whether his face is pitted with pockmarks, his leg is stiff, or his arm is deformed
Carrying an A-frame of juniper wood on his back with three hundred brass coins on it
He has gone to Gangneung and Samcheok to buy salt
I hope he comes back safely through the winding Baekbongnyeong Pass
“Yeokkeum Arirang,” in which the lyrics of the first part are dense and sung quickly, as if telling a story, and the latter part becomes slow-paced and assumes the melody of “Gin Arirang,” is known for its comic aesthetics of humor and excitement.
Compared to the “Arirang” songs of other regions, “Jeongseon Arirang” is more focused on lyrics, so there are various versions of lyrics. The lyrics of “Jeongseon Arirang” were made and refined from time to time over an extensive period of time, and currently more than 10,000 versions are on record. It is considered to be the most varied folk song in the world. Its lyrics reflect the sentiments of the people in Jeongseon, who lived in poverty but remained optimistic. Their feelings in different colors for each period have been passed down to the present in the lyrics.
The remote and mountainous geographical conditions of Jeongseon meant that the region did not have many cultural exchanges with other regions and developed a unique mountainous culture in a vacuum. Such sentiments are clear in the musical aspects of “Jeongseon Arirang” such as its melodic structure and pitch range.
The melody of “Jeongseon Arirang” is based on the tune “Menari.” While most Korean folk songs finish with a “la” or “mi” note, “Jeongseon Arirang” starts with “re” and finishes with “mi.” The notes of “Ari-rang-” in the chorus part are “mi-la-sol-mi,” and the melodic line, which ascends four notes and gradually decreases, is typical of the tune “Menari.” Also, in “Arirang gogae gogaero nareul neomgyeojuge” (“Let me cross over Arirang Pass”) in the last part, the melody goes up in “Arirang gogae gogaero” and down in “nareul neomgyeojuge” so as to be stabilized.
The pitch range of “Jeongseon Arirang” is relatively narrow, with a dominant 7 chord. Compared to the dominant 8 of “Gangwon-do Arirang” and dominant 11 of “Miryang Arirang,” it can be said that it has a very narrow pitch range. Because the range between the highest and lowest notes is not so wide and the melody is prolonged and monotonous, it is easy for anyone to improvise nearly infinite lyrics once they become familiarized with the melody of the song. So, “Jeongseon Arirang” is said to be a song for which any words can be put to music. This also evidences that “Jeongseon Arirang” is folksier than any other folk song, and it has been handed down as a song for daily life.
In Jeongseon, you can witness old men and women usually humming “Jeongseon Arirang” very slowly and in a relaxed way. When they are joined by others or become excited, they sing it faster. When sung slowly, “Jeongseon Arirang” is more of an oral sound, and when sung fast, it becomes similar to Western rap music.
“Jeongseon Arirang” delivers feelings of sadness to some listeners and feelings of joy to others. Such different feelings can be evoked with just one song because “Jeongseon Arirang” is like a vessel that contains many sentiments.
“Jeongseon Arirang” reflects all aspects of life such as living and dying, love and parting, failure and overcoming, and steadiness and perseverance. The act of singing “Jeongseon Arirang” in the secluded space of Jeongseon indicates one's determination to overcome the realities of life by reaffirming and emphasizing one’s existence.
For centuries, people in Jeongseon learned to sing “Jeongseon Arirang” early in their lives, even before they understood what the lyrics meant, and they sang the song while being familiarized with it naturally in their daily lives. It is not difficult to hear “Jeongseon Arirang” anywhere in Jeongseon because it has been an integral aspect of daily life for so long.
“Jeongseon Arirang” is being taught and transmitted with both words and hearts and sung in every corner of our lives again today. It is the standard for the preservation and transmission of “Arirang” in Korea.
By Jin Yong-seon (director of the Jeongseon Arirang Research Institute)