The 'May
Day Song'

Yanggak Island Discs // A Song for International Workers' Day.

Folk fest

May 1 is International Worker's Day in the DPRK, the same international holiday celebrated in many countries honouring the workers of the world. For locals May Day provides a day off to enjoy the fine spring weather on the peninsula. In Pyongyang, the holiday is often marked with a folk festival and musical performance at Mt. Taesong as well as family outings to the park or riverbank.

Yet unlike the former USSR, the DPRK does not mark the day with a military parade. Contrary to popular belief (and most international news broadcasts), military parades only occur every 2-3 years in the DPRK. (Yes, we've mentioned this before, but in this day and age it is worth repeating in perhaps a vain attempt to set the records straight.) This year there was a parade on February 8 to mark the foundation of the Korean People's Army. Last year a parade was held on April 15 marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung, while the previous one was on October 10, 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Worker's Party. The previous parade before that was on Victory Day (July 27) 2013. This year we are expecting a parade or similarly large celebrations for DPRK National Day on September 9, which will mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK.

For this upcoming May Day, Yanggak Island Discs brings you the aptly named 'May Day Song'. Above is the karaoke version, and you can listen to a vinyl recording of the 'May Day Song' on our Soundcloud account.

Unlike most Korean songs, title uses a direct transliteration of the English 'May Day' (메데) rather than the Korean, rodongchol (로동절). 'May Day' is followed by the Sino-Korean word for song (-가/-歌). Don't let anyone tell you that foreign words don't make their way into the language used in North Korea. Don't ever.

While foreign 'loan-words' are, of course, more common in South Korea, they do also make an appearance in the north. There has been a degree of preference, widely cited and perhaps exaggerated by outside observers, to using 'native Korean' vocabulary over those with Chinese origin (a large part of the Korean language akin to Latin/French-based lexicon in English) and foreign words. Yet some like 'bus' (뻐스) and 'necktie' (넥타이) have been in use for a long time.

One could argue that the the foreign words that do exist in the north have been more seamlessly integrated into the language than in the south, in a similar manner that the Japanese term 'tsunami' or today even the Korean 'kimchi' may not seem entirely foreign to an English speaker. (We speculate there are a number of reasons for this.) Here the decision to use of the English 'May Day' is likely a recognition of the international spirit of the holiday, which was established by the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in the United States.

Indeed the song makes an appearance in the Korean film Five Guerilla Brothers which tells the tale of a family engaged in revolutionary activities against Japanese colonial rule (see below). The songs lyrics are focused on the struggle of the working class.

For readers of Japanese, the Songs of the DPRK blog is an excellent resource. It lists DPRK songs by year with a short description, lyrics in Korean and translated into Japanese, and links to videos on You Tube.

To mark our 25th year anniversary, we have recently updated our three tours for May Day: the May Day Short Tour (April 28-May 3), the May Day Tour (April 28-May 5), and the May Day and East Coast Tour (April 28-May 8). These will be some of the most exciting and interactive tours to-date.

Yanggak Island Discs is a regular posting on songs from old North Korean vinyls. Follow the Yanggak Island Discs Sound Cloud for more recordings of featured songs.

Updated 15 March 2018

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