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Phạm Duy and
About Phạm Duy
Eric Henry University of North Carolina
A paper presented at the Southeastern Conference, Association for Asian Studies
Lexington, Kentucky, January 15, 2005
The history of the Vietnamese in the twentieth century is the still incomplete story of a people’s continuous material and spiritual self transformation as they sought, and gradually found, the means to replace ancient structures, thoughts, and habits with new ones that would enable them to throw off the yoke of colonial domination and enter the modern era, with identity intact, as a strong and free member of the world community.
Eric Henry, retired Chinese and Vietnamese language professor at UNC, Chapel Hill. —photo by portrait photographer David Henry
In this paper I propose to look at the musician Phạm Duy, born in 1921 in Hanoi and currently living in Midway City, California, as one of the witnesses and spokesmen of this history. Fate and a series of personal decisions conspired to put Phạm Duy at the heart of the transformative processes taking place in his society and enabled him to give expression to these processes in a way that was heard by huge numbers of his compatriots.
Though personally acquainted with politicians and political thinkers of every sort throughout his career, Phạm Duy managed to fulfill his role as a spokesman for the modern without once entering the political arena himself; he always, in fact, looked with disdain upon the quest for political power. Commenting in his Memoirs on the first General Conference on the Arts held in Hanoi under Việt Minh auspices in 1945, in which, at the age of twenty-five, he was a minor participant, he says
Anyone involved in politics will necessarily wind up with dirty hands. As is said in the Fables of La Fontaine, “the justifications of the strongest are always the most convincing justifications.” Or, as a proverb of ours says, “If you win, you’re an emperor; if you lose, you’re a bandit.” My disgust with politics lies in this.
I… saw clearly which party would vanquish the others in that competitive political card game… But understanding the situation was as far as I wished to go. As for the game of strife and bloodletting, that was an amusement that I was pleased to leave to others. I liked the arts; I did not like politics. From that time forth, I firmly resolved never to participate in such blood sports.
The four volumes of Memoirs from which the above passage is quoted show us a man highly allergic to intellectual coercion, a man with a mind constantly engaged in a process of absorption and synthesis, a man inclined to see a purpose in all his experiences and a meaning to everything he observes, a man who came to know everyone and everything in Vietnam, and a man under a quasi-confessional compulsion to tell the entire truth about his experiences. His fans often observe that he is a tư tưởng gia, a thinker, as well as a composer; and he himself implicitly assumes the mantle of a thinker in the introduction to his Memoirs with a casual invocation of certain personages from the past. “Goethe and Maxim Gorky,” he says, “ seem to have regarded their childhood experiences as their ‘universities.’ As one who never had the opportunity to pursue his studies among books in a school setting, I shall imitate those two august figures and say that my ‘university education’ consisted of the music of the common people, which I observed in the course of my earlier, wandering life.”
Phạm Duy’s birth and childhood in a neighborhood in Hanoi’s old quarter, only a block or two away from the Lake of the Sword’s Return, placed in the middle of the exciting new westernizing changes then taking place at the heart of Vietnam’s intellectual culture. His father, Phạm Duy Tốn, was a progressive journalist, writer, and businessman, a close associate of the translator and reformer Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, and one of the earliest writers of European-style short stories. Phạm Duy Tốn was also among the first Vietnamese to cut his hair short and wear European clothing, was one of the key figures in the founding of the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục or Hanoi Free School movement of 1907, and, with Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and Phạm Quỳnh, took part in the Marseilles Exposition of 1922. All this was to prove a decisive influence on Phạm Duy, whose own career was to consist, among other things, of an untiring quest for all manifestations of the new, the progressive, and the enlightened. After Phạm Duy Tốn’s early death in 1923 from tuberculosis, Trần Trọng Kim, the future historian and prime minister of Vietnam, assumed the occasional role of guardian for Phạm Duy and his siblings, the eldest of whom, Phạm Duy Khiêm, was the first Vietnamese to obtain an advanced academic degree in France, and was to serve for a time as Vietnam’s ambassador to France under the Ngô Đình Diệm regime.
In spite of these culturally glittering surroundings, Phạm Duy’s childhood, though not tragically deprived, was at the same time not comfortable in material terms, and was also not exclusively urban and intellectual. His mother regularly took him with her on far-flung expeditions to festivals at Buddhist pagodas, and into the highland areas to obtain deer antlers and tiger bones to make medicinal powder cakes, the sale of which helped supply the costs of raising a brood of children; and his wet nurse took him with her to her rural village in Trạm Trôi for extended periods, giving the young Phạm Duy a familiarity with rice fields, thatched huts, and village festivals that laid a basis for his many later evocations of country life.
Even before he was drawn into the world of music, certain proclivities that were to remain with him throughout his life announced themselves early. These included a fascination with performance, a delight in the exploration of modern technology, an inability to endure any kind of regimentation, and a boundless optimism that converted every unpleasantness or disaster that befell him into what seemed to him an exciting adventure or a shining opportunity.
His interest in performance was aroused, initially, by showmen and acrobats who would perform for crowds in an open field by Sword Lake, and in particular by a Mr. Hai Tây, who could stick spikes through his nostrils and make sounds like a trumpet by blowing on the flesh between his thumbs and forefingers. The young Phạm Duy soon afterward came to be captivated by the magicians, trapeze artists, and animal tamers in the traveling circuses that would come through Hanoi and give performances at the Hàng Da market. He was so enamored of these performances that he gave himself the name, meaningful both in Vietnamese and French, of “em-mê-xiếc,” or “the kid wild about circuses.”[i] He dreamed of being a traveling magician throughout childhood, would regularly demand that his friends and family watch him perform sleight-of-hand tricks learned from professionals, and on one occasion went so far as to run away for a few days with a circus magician, getting as far as the city of Nam Định. These dreams were to take concrete form throughout his adult life, in which wandering and performance have been two of the main motifs, though in the (no doubt highly analogous) realm of music rather than magic.
As a teenager, his interest in technology took the form of using kits to construct model airplanes and other gadgets, making ham radio sets with quartz crystals, visiting foundries in the Hanoi’s Ngũ Xã district near West Lake to absorb lessons in bronze casting techniques, working in such technical fields as radio repair, land surveying, power station maintenance, and so on. This penchant for understanding the workings of things expressed itself later in his research into the technical aspects of all the styles of folk and traditional music in Vietnam. In the late 1980s, he became the first Vietnamese expatriate to manufacture and sell a music CD, and in the years since, he has turned into a computer and electronics wizard. He publishes dozens of what he calls “electronic books” (CD ROMs with sound, text, and images), which he is convinced will replace conventional books, and maintains an elaborate website devoted to his own career, inferior to none in stylishness, richness of content, and smoothness of operation.
Phạm Duy’s Memoirs are full of the cries of delight with which he met each new situation into which life thrust him. When consigned to an industrial trade school by an elder brother no longer willing to waste money on providing him with a liberal arts education, he is almost immediately enchanted at the prospect of learning the secrets of modern steel technology. When doing the laborious work of a rural surveyor, going from place to place on a little horse in order to determine the boundaries and calculate the areas of dispersed plots of farm land, he is soon delighted because the work takes him to all the places in the adjacent villages of Nhã Nam and Yên Thế, and because he is given a warm welcome by all the tenant farmers in these places. When, in the remote border province of Moncay, he is working as a furnace stoker in an electric power plant amid blistering heat and carbon dioxide fumes, his days pass rapturously because his co-worker is a former professional opera singer who talks tirelessly about cải lương opera and sings southern vọng cổ arias in a finely expressive manner. In the spring of 1946, as a newly trained guerrilla soldier riding south on a train with twelve other youths in a unit called Cadre Group 13 to fight the French in the Bà Riạ—Vũng Tầu military district, he is full of patriotic fervor; he jots down a song full of martial enthusiasm called “Bringing Forth the Troops” (Xuất Quân) and is delighted to find himself in a group prized and loved by the other passengers, who give him and his companions vast quantities of things to eat.
This indomitable positivism finds definite expression in Phạm Duy’s music, where we find a penchant for major modes, and a celebratory and affirming impulse not typical of Vietnamese tân nhạc as a whole, which is much given to minor modes, long winding phrases, and expressions of cosmic yearning and despair.
The Memoirs provide much testimony concerning another trait, also somewhat at odds with the author’s cultural background, and also prominent throughout his career as a musician and public figure: a profound inability to endure any form of authority or regimentation. He lasted less than a year at the Industrial Arts School because, as he observes, his violations of school regulations were a bit frequent—things such as getting into fights, sneaking away from school when he was supposed to be confined to the premises, and raising a hammer to strike a steel foundry director who was about to box his ears for some mistake. Some months later, unable to endure the supercilious remarks of an elder brother and brother-in-law who regarded him as a screw-up, he left home and began an independent existence in Hanoi as a repairman in a radio shop. It was insubordinacy as well that led to his fateful break with the Viet Minh in 1950. In this year, at the Second General Conference on the Arts held in the forests of Yên Giã in the far northwest, the Việt Minh leadership started making its first serious attempts to control the output of artists, starting with such heavy-handed measures as forbidding any further performances of cải lương opera or of verse drama, forms judged to be soft, weak, and awash with negative emotions that would weaken the spectators’ resolve to fight the enemy.
Phạm Duy had been serving the Viet Minh as a cultural cadre since the inception of the Resistance War, and had by this time composed many famous songs thought to be indispensable to the war effort, such as “The Warrior Without a Name” (Chiến Sĩ Vô Danh), “The Debt of Bones and Blood” (Nợ Xương Máu), “Remembering the One Gone Forth” (Nhớ Người Ra Đi), “Song of the Warrior’s Wife” (Chinh Phụ Ca), Battlefield Autumn” (Thu Chiến Trường), “Music of the Years of Youth” (Nhạc Tuổi Xanh), and many others. It nevertheless came as a surprise to him, at the Second General Conference on the Arts, that the Việt Minh leadership had singled him out for special treatment.
It was the senior musician Nguyễn Xuân Khoát who broke the news to him. The leadership, he said, had decided to admit Phạm Duy to the Communist party and send him to Moscow for musical and political training. He would have a medal pinned on him by Hồ Chí Minh. But there were conditions. He would have to give up his taste for frivolity and dissipation. He would have to publicly repudiate an extremely popular song he had written, “By the Bridge at the Border” (Bên Cầu Biên Giới), that was judged by the leadership to be unacceptably subjective, romantic, and petit bourgeois, and he would have to go to Moscow alone; his pregnant wife, the singer and actress Thai Hang, would have to remain in Vietnam.
These conditions were all more or less problematic to Phạm Duy, but he was particularly incredulous, angry, and contemptuous at the requirement that he repudiate “By the Bridge at the Border.” It seemed to him, he says, that the leadership was taking the matter entirely too seriously:
A song, in my opinion, if it has the good fortune to be sung for a period of time, will have a life no different from that of a flower that blooms in the morning and wilts in the evening—why must its importance must be magnified to the extent that you have to subject the poor thing to a public execution?
Phạm Duy also sensed at once that belonging to the party would involve him in endless trouble. Though a person whose revolutionary sympathies were no doubt very strong, he saw clearly that, by background and personality, he was a petty bourgeois, not a member of the proletariat. What he had feared most throughout his life was being subject to a set of rules. His ability to grasp abstract theory was moreover very limited. When in the presence of high-ranking cadres discussing fine points of Communist doctrine, he would sit, he says, like a duck listening to thunder—i.e., with total incomprehension. He was certainly not the sort of person who could memorize the lessons, edicts, and theories of the party. Any attempt to belong to such an organization, he says, would have ended in a few days with his ejection, administered by means of a swift kick to his posterior.
The reply that Phạm Duy gave a few days later to Nguyễn Xuân Khoát was therefore that he felt deep gratitude to everyone, but wished to be given no special favors of any sort. His sole request was to be allowed to return at once with his wife to his previous location in Zone IV: the liberated area in Thanh Hoá province.
After returning to Thanh Hoá, however, he found that he had in effect become invisible to the Việt Minh leadership—he was assigned no further work in any Việt Minh performing arts group. Finally, after living for a year in conditions of ever increasing want, he found it necessary, after six years of serving the Resistance, to slip away from the liberated zone with his wife and her family and return to the French occupied cities, first Hanoi and then Saigon, merely to have the means to support his family.
The Việt Minh’s desire to remove Phạm Duy’s song “By the Bridge at the Border” from public circulation was of course a particular manifestation of the more general communist principle that all art must be made to serve revolutionary objectives; but this and other efforts to suppress suspect music also harmonized perfectly with an ancient east Asian superstition originating in China, according to which some types of music can make states and dynasties flourish, while other types can bring about their destruction. The term used in classical Chinese texts for music of the undesirable type is wang guo zhi yin (vong quốc chi âm in Vietnamese)—“lose-country music.” One aspect of this conception is the idea that “bad-for-the-nation” music is darkly and insidiously attractive, and therefore must be opposed with manly, determined puritanism.
The idea that music can lead to national good fortune or disaster was pervasive enough in Vietnam that it sometimes influenced the behavior of politicians and writers in the South as well as in the North. In the early 1970s, for example, President Thiệu of the Vietnamese Republic made it illegal to give public performances of a song “Hận Đồ Bàn,” (“Fury at the Loss of Đồ Bàn”) by Xuân Tiên and Lữ Liên, lamenting the fall of the Chàm capital to Vietnamese troops led by emperor Lê Thánh Tôn in 1470. Thiệu believed that the song possessed a malign supernatural influence that might lead to the loss of the republic. He even went so far as to forbid the singer chiefly associated with the song (Chế Linh, a man of Chàm background) to perform anything in public. In the same manner, when Phạm Duy wrote a highly influential war protest song in the mid 1960s called “A Souvenir For My Sweetheart” (Kỷ Vật Cho Em),[ii] in which a soldier predicts to his beloved that she will see him return—as a cripple or as a corpse—various people raised accusations against the composer, saying that the dissemination of this song had made military men lose heart, with the result that the Southern Republic was defeated by the Northern Communists. Phạm Duy, taking a typically progressive, rational, anti-obscurantist stance, ridicules this idea in his Memoirs, asking if we are to believe that a song is more effective at attacking the enemy than an army with a million people that enjoys the support of an allied nation with the atomic bomb.
Anyone looking for an easily grasped consistency in Phạm Duy’s views, however, will be disappointed, for he is an heir to the traditional collectivism of Vietnamese thinking, as well as to his father’s progressive rationalism. Phạm Duy often expresses the view in his Memoirs that artistic productions, both his own and those of his friends, played an important role in educating and motivating the soldiers and the public during the anti-French Resistance phase of the war. Nor does he think, as westerners are apt to, that it is either wrong or futile for governments to enlist the aid of artists in gaining public support for their programs. He in fact believes that a government that fails to make use of artists is missing the boat, and he faults the successive governments of the South for failing in precisely this area; whereas he praises the Việt Minh, particularly in its early years, for recognizing the importance of the arts in mobilizing people to fight the French, and for going to great lengths to create performance groups, the mission of which was to entertain soldiers and civilians in liberated areas. The Vietnamese word for propaganda (tuyên truyền, or xuan chuan in Chinese) doesn’t have the entirely negative connotations that the English word has. While working as a cultural cadre for the Việt Minh, Phạm Duy at times went on journeys to places where military activity was occurring or where civilians faced particularly severe conditions, so that he could use his observations as the basis for new compositions furthering the war effort. Songs by Phạm Duy such as “The Sound of Singing on the River Lo,” (Tiếng Hát Trên Sông Lô) When Will You Take the French Encampment,” (Bao Giờ Anh Lấy Được Đồ Tây) “Twelve Lullabies,” (Mười Hai Lời Ru) and “The Mother of Gio Linh” (Bà Mẹ Gio Linh) were the direct result of such investigative missions and would not otherwise have come into existence.
The last three songs in particular were among the fruits of a dangerous and physically challenging journey that took him and his companions south from Thanh Hoá province over the Trường Son mountain range into the Bình—Trị—Thiên area—the three provinces of Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị, and Thừa Thiên. The Hồ Chí Minh trail didn’t yet exist at this time; Phạm Duy and the others in his small group of cultural cadres may well have been among the first groups to use machetes to start creating this route to the South.
While stationed in Thanh Hoá, known in Việt Minh parlance as “Military Zone IV,” Phạm Duy was for more than a year under the direct supervision of the zone commander general Nguyễn Sơn and the writer Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh, a political cadre in charge of mobilizing artists and intellectuals to participate in the resistance effort. Phạm Duy expresses nothing but praise and enthusiasm for the way these two figures worked with artists. The guidance they provided was basically supportive, and was oftentimes more practical than ideological in nature. Nguyễn Sơn, who had worked with arts units in Mao Zedong’s eighth route army, would teach actors and singers to project their voices by having them say their lines while standing on opposite sides of a lake until the two groups could understand each other. There were no electronic amplification systems in the liberated areas in those years.
Nguyen Sơn once made a remark to the young Phạm Duy that the composer was to remember throughout his life. He had just written a song for a mobilization campaign entitled “Competing in Patriotism” (Thi Đua Ái Quốc) that contained the lines, “If you have a gun, Then I have a workman’s hands; If you have a hoe, Then I have a guitar; If you kill so many colonials, Then I’ll steal so many guns and bullets; If you have flowering fields, Then I have a thousand sets of lyrics.” On hearing the composer sing the song, the general half closed his eyes and said, “You must keep that promise, O.K., young fellow? You must make a thousand sets of lyrics.” Some forty years later in Midway City California, Phạm Duy printed a book entitled A Thousand Sets of Lyrics containing the texts of most of the songs he had written up to that time. He regretted only that general Nguyễn Sơn was no longer there for him to present the book to.
Thus, even though Phạm Duy had been disturbed, in 1945, to notice such phenomena as the exclusion of such patriotic and anti-French factions as the Self-Help Literary Group of Nhất Linh and Khái Hưng, and the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng at the time of the first General Conference on the Arts, and even though he had heard reports as well of Việt Minh directed assassinations of members of such groups, he nevertheless appears to have had no feeling of intellectual coercion in the Việt Minh arts groups to which he belonged from 1946 to 1950—groups that were full of camaraderie, enthusiasm, and adventure. It was only when the Việt Minh leadership, partly in response to Mao Zedong’s 1949 victory in China, revealed its determination to apply ideological rules to everything that Phạm Duy and many other artistic and intellectual figures began expressing their preference for freedom of thought by returning to the French-occupied cities. By that time, emperor Bảo Đại had been able to obtain from France what Hồ Chí Minh had earlier sought without success: a recognition of Vietnamese national sovereignty; so a nominally free and independent Vietnamese government that continued to press for further autonomy now existed in the urban areas, not to speak of other politically autonomous groups like the Cao Đài, the Hoà Hảo, the Bình Xuyên, and the Catholic communities of Phát Diệm and Bùi Chu.
Phạm Duy’s Việt Minh mentors, Nguyễn Sơn and Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh, both people accustomed, like the composer, to the exercise of independent thought, were also affected by the Việt Minh leadership’s move toward leftist totalitarianism. Nguyễn Sơn left for “further training” in China after having a violent argument with Hồ Chí Minh over the extent to which the leadership was accepting Chinese communist aid and advice. As for Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh, he at length “voted with his feet” as had Phạm Duy, and joined the latter in Saigon, where the two continued to exchange ideas on art and politics and to collaborate on projects.
In Saigon in the early 1950s, both Phạm Duy and Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh were closely associated with Đời Mới or New Life, then the most influential and handsomely produced periodical in the South. In an effort to build up a spirit of modern nationalism among the public, they used this periodical as a forum in which to define and celebrate all the traits that bound the Vietnamese together as a people. Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh published a series of articles with titles such as “The Vietnamese: A People Worthy of Love” (Người Việt Đáng Yêu), “Vietnam: A Land Worthy of Love” (Đất Việt Đáng Yêu), and “Vietnamese: A Language Worthy of Love” (Tiếng Việt Đáng Yêu). Among the contributions of Phạm Duy to this effort were two of his most well-known songs, “Feeling For One’s Homeland” (Tình Hoài Hương) and “Song of Feeling” (Tình Ca).
The first song, an extended expression of nostalgia for specific countryside scenes, turned out to exactly fit the circumstances of the million refugees who soon afterward, in 1954, had to emigrate from the North to the South, and, later on, of the million-some refugees who fled Vietnam after 1975. The second song aimed to unite all the people of the country in a common feeling of love for their language, land, and race:
I’ve loved my country’s language from the time I entered life,
My mother’s distant lyrics soothed me into sleep, oh ah,
This song seems to have been the first well-known artistic production in Vietnam aimed at expressing a feeling of an ethnically-defined national identity. In earlier eras, political divisions, regional rivalries, feudalistic notions of loyalty, and, most recently, the Communist-Nationalist chasm, had all worked to prevent expressions of cultural and spiritual unity. In this song, as in all his other work, Phạm Duy seeks to speak directly to all classes of people in the nation without using any political or religious path whatsoever to approach them. He seeks also to transcend all divisions, suspicions, and prejudices arising from regionality; to erase, in short, the demarcation lines between the north, south, and central regions. He regards all manifestations of particularistic politics—blind devotion to personages, parties, political dogma, religions, and regions—as throwbacks to Vietnam’s feudal past, and seeks to do his part toward encouraging the disappearance of such phenomena by acting always as if they do not exist. This makes large numbers of his countrymen remark, with puzzlement and suspicion, that “Phạm Duy has no political stance.” The composer is confident that the nationalistic but non-factional attitude that he cultivates will gain greater understanding in later generations, and will in fact become eventually the orientation of choice for most Vietnamese.
One example of Phạm Duy’s lifelong determination to behave as if political divisions did not exist among Vietnamese was his 1956 use of a poem by Huy Cận to write a song that would turn out to be one of his most continuously performed efforts, “Ngậm Ngùi” or “Melancholy.” The poem had originally appeared in the 1930s when Huy Cận was one of a new group of proponents of a “new poetry” that had wide and immediate appeal among young people. Like several other members of this group, Huy Cận later joined the Resistance, remained with the Việt Minh, and turned into a regime poet and party spokesman. The song that Phạm Duy wrote in 1956 was thus a melding of cultures. It joined two periods, an earlier time of peace, and a later time of warfare; and it was a collaboration between artists who lived in two regions, each of which regarded the other as evil incarnate.
When studying in Paris during the two years just prior to his creation of this song, Phạm Duy noticed that a clear and deep line of division had appeared among Vietnamese students resident in the city. Conflicts between those who “followed” Mr. Hồ and those who “followed” Mr. Diệm had already begun to appear. It was as if the “us-them” dualistic thinking that had been necessary to oppose the French during the resistance war had now been immediately and silently transferred by the Vietnamese to elements within their own community. Most students in Paris had been swept off their feet by the charisma of Hồ Chí Minh in the summer and fall of 1945, when he was in Paris to participate in the Fontainebleau conference on Franco-Vietnamese relations. With their enthusiasm further bolstered by the exhilarating news of the Vietnamese victory at Điện Biên Phủ, and with little or no personal experience of life under the Việt Minh regime, these students were ardent believers in the mythology of revolution, and regarded anyone who was not a follower of Hồ as “the enemy.” No middle ground was possible. Phạm Duy was “the enemy” because he socialized, that is, “consorted,” with Võ Lăng, an old Fine Arts School classmate who was now an advisor to Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem—and Phạm Duy was moreover the younger brother of Diệm’s ambassador to France, Phạm Duy Khiêm. So he found himself, in the mid 1950s cut off from a large portion of the Vietnamese community in Paris. Phạm Duy notes, however, that when he returned to Paris some thirty-five years later, after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the fading of the socialist myth in Vietnam, the radical young Vietnamese firebrands of the mid fifties had all, to a man, turned into well-to-do doctors, professors, and barristers whose human feelings had evidently ceased to be controlled by politics.
When, due purely to the strength, enterprise, and abundance of his creative endeavors, Phạm Duy became one of the chief cultural ornaments of the southern republic, it of course became necessary for the northern regime to characterize him as a leader of the forces of evil; so articles by regime spokesmen, some of them musicians, appeared in state-controlled media in which this supremely positive and wholesome composer is characterized as a purveyor of nhạc vàng or “yellow music”—music which, by communist definition, seduces its listeners into despair, dissipation, and enslavement. The Việt Minh’s grudge against Phạm Duy remains highly operative within Vietnam today—where all public performance and distribution of his music remains illegal. Thus, “revolutionary” modes of thought continue to provide a haven for backward, feudal, particularistic, quasi-superstitious practices.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Phạm Duy’s refusal to associate himself with the hard right politics of a large and vocal section of the expatriate community, and his decision, taken in the year 2000, to start returning to Vietnam for visits, regularly gives rise to accusations in the Vietnamese expatriate press that he is thân Cộng, or pro-communist—in spite of his often expressed disdain for the more extreme practices of the communist faction.
Both in his Saigon years and during his sojourn in the United States, Phạm Duy has consistently applied himself to themes that transcend political factionalism. His song cycle The Mandarin Road (Con Đường Cái Quan), begun in 1954 and completed in 1960, in which an imaginary traveler makes his way along Vietnam’s “National Highway Number One” from the northern to the southern extremity of the nation, was among other things a protest against the Geneva Convention’s division of Vietnam into two political entities. His Mothers of Vietnam (Mẹ Việt Nam) a song-cycle completed in 1964, with sections entitled “The Maternal Earth” (Đất Mẹ), “The Maternal Mountains” (Núi Mẹ), “The Maternal Rivers” (Sông Mẹ), and “The Maternal Oceans” (Biển Mẹ), upholds a value and a symbol that reverberates equally in Communist and Nationalist hearts; and it concludes with a song, “Vietnam, Vietnam,” that has the character of a national anthem. Unlike the anthems of the northern and southern regimes, which call upon Vietnamese to make blood sacrifices for the nation, Phạm Duy’s song simply calls upon Vietnamese to unite in love and build a free and democratic nation. When the intervention of various foreign powers led to the drastic escalation of the war in the later 1960s, Phạm Duy wrote several song-cycles protesting the tragically pointless mayhem that was the result, and expressing a determination to uphold human values amid the carnage.
During his life in exile, a period now almost thirty years long, Phạm Duy has written song cycles on the sufferings of the victims of revolutionary ideology, such as a very large group of Refugee Songs (Tỵ Nạn Ca) and a set of Prison Songs (Ngục Ca) in which he sets to music the poems of the long-term political prisoner Nguyễn Chí Thiện. At the same time he has continued to write many song cycles on universal themes. These include a group of songs (Hoàng Cầm Ca) written in the 1980s using poems by Hoàng Cầm reflecting a young boy’s hopeless love for an older girl. Hoàng Cầm, perhaps Vietnam’s most illustrious living poet in the year 2005, is an old friend of Phạm Duy’s from his years in the Resistance who later became both a regime poet and a victim of cultural totalitarianism. Other cycles, written in the 1990s, include Ten Zen Meditation Songs (Mười Bài Thiền Ca), centered on a person’s relationship to the familiar things of the world as he enters old age, and a group of songs that use as lyrics the mystical and religious poems of Hàn Mặc Tử, an early twentieth century Christian poet who died of leprosy in his late twenties. Song cycles currently in progress include the Homeland Fragrance Songs (Hương Ca), devoted to the composer’s reflections on returning to Vietnam after more than two decades of absence, and, most significantly, the Illustrations of Kieu (Minh Họa Kiều), a set of four linked song cycles on four phases of Vietnam’s national poem The Tale of Kiều (Truyện Kiều).
In this last work, begun around 1998, Phạm Duy, more decisively than ever, has seized the cultural middle ground. The early 19th century narrative poem in “six-eight” couplets from which the lyrics are culled, relates in more than two thousand lines the predestined romantic tragedies of a peerlessly gifted beauty. This is preeminently the poem in which every Vietnamese, of whatever background, sees his or her own character and destiny. Its author, Nguyễn Du, a court officer under the Nguyễn dynasty, belonged to a culture hugely earlier than, and hugely different from, that of Phạm Duy; but, like the modern composer, he was a person remarkably free from the constraints of absolutist thinking. His characters are drawn in half-tones; none are wholly good and few are wholly evil; and the ultimate guide to behavior, in this poet’s eyes, lies not in adherence to any doctrine-driven value, such as feudal loyalty or chastity, but in cultivation of the innate impulses of the heart.
Phạm Duy’s Illustrations of Kieu, of which the first two phases and much of the third phase are now complete, has the character of a dramatic oratorio. It is of composite texture, including intoned poetry, melodic narration, part-writing, orchestral color, and melody. It’s musical episodes have little repetition and many “undetachable” passages—stretches of music too entangled in what precedes or what follows, or in what is happening simultaneously, to be taken away and sung as independent tunes.
Thus throughout his life, and preeminently in this most recent magnum opus, Phạm Duy has created a body of work that will be inconvenient, and finally impossible, for Vietnamese societies and governments to suppress. While most of his compatriots, under the pressure both of world politics and feudal habit, have been running to peripheral locations and damning the occupants of other peripheral locations, Phạm Duy has remained, with relaxed insouciance, in the center, extending a welcome to everyone. Fortunately, his creative powers have had the strength necessary to compel others to pay attention to his occupancy of the center—to force people, as it were, to endure the thought of a person living in the middle with no loyalty to a doctrine, a person, or a faction.
While it is not as yet possible to predict in what generation this will occur, it is inevitable that Phạm Duy’s Memoirs and Phạm Duy’s music will one day join the Tale of Kiều in the school curricula of youngsters throughout Vietnam. A people cannot deny their own identity forever. The process of amalgamation has already begun. The PRC government’s prohibition of public performance of the works of Phạm Duy remains in force, but more and more singers are ignoring the prohibition, and the government seems less and less interested in enforcing it. In the past several years, there has even been a person with the courage to open a little place a little place in Hanoi with seating for about eight people, called the “Café Phạm Duy.” There, people can go and sip delicious coffee-based concoctions and listen to Phạm Duy’s music—not performed by live singers, but on a collection of CDs maintained at the premises. The woman who runs the establishment was initially arrested for “engaging in cultural propaganda” but was then released and allowed to continue her business.
Meanwhile more and more expatriate Vietnamese are starting to ignore the voices of the hard right and seek exchanges and relationships with people within Vietnam. The yearly expatriate commemoration of the loss of the southern republic, originally called the “Day of National Mourning” (Lễ Quốc Hận) is now being referred to in a less bitter and more neutral way as the “Day of National Upheaval” (Lễ Quốc Biến). The changes now occurring on the two sides, are all of a small, random, individual nature, like the shifting of grains of sand on a beach or the falling of leaves in autumn, but there can be little doubt as to the eventual outcome. And when the two sides finally make their peace with each other, Phạm Duy, who foresaw the outcome throughout his life, will be waiting for them.
[i] This name was meaningful in another way as well: at the time he gave himself this name, Phạm Duy, then twelve years old, was in love with a little girl of half French parentage named Emilienne. The Vietnamese transliteration of her name was “em-mê-liên,” that is, “the kid wild about lotus flowers.” Thus, with the name “em-mê xiếc,” he and Emilienne had matching names!
[ii] This was a setting of a poem by a soldier in a paratrooper’s unit that Phạm Duy had seen in a newpaper. The poem was called “An Answer to a Question” (Trả Lời Một Câu Hỏi).