Pham Duy 2010

Pham Duy and his Travels Through History


Jason Gibbs 5/23/02


I'm very honored to be speaking with you today at such an important event. It's daunting to be speaking before a knowledgable audience who has lived with Pham Duy's music, and it's even more intimidating to be addressing the subject of my talk. With such a vast and variegated musical output I know that I can't begin to do justice to Pham Duy's music, so I will just choose one narrow strand of his work. My research has been on the history of modern Vietnamese song. While my interest is in music, it's impossible to separate music from wider historical events, especially in the case of Vietnam, a land that has had such a difficult and contentious history. In my talk today I want to talk about some of Pham Duy's music as a reflection of the experience of living in such difficult times. I would argue that his songs are an honest reaction to often impossible events, and are thus are a truthful reflection of these times.

During the span of Pham Duy's life Vietnam has been a colonized nation, has experienced occupation during a World War, suffered starvation, fought a war of liberation, undergone war with Vietnamese fighting Vietnamese, experienced political instability, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese left as refugees scattered across the four directions of the compass. One can understand the enduring meaning of a book like Nguyễn Du's "Truyện Kiều" with a sentence like:

Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng
[Experiencing a time when seas overtake mulberry fields
You'll witness things that will break your heart]


What role does a creative artist have in such troubled times? I would argue to bear witness, and to express what is best and most noble about our common humanity. In 1946 Vietnam was on the eve of a war of resistance with France. Pham Duy wrote a song, that even he has forgotten, called "Phương Trời xa" - "Distant skies". The opening two lines of the song go:

Một bước ra đi không còn hòai nghi !
Nhắm tới phuơng trời xa xa ca khúc nhac đời !
[Let's take a step to go with no more doubts!
Aim toward distant skies, far away, with life's music!]


In English we have a saying: "Be careful what you wish for; yet may just get it." Since that first step, when he joined the resistance, taking to the road guitar in hand, he's been in continuous motion following "life's music." Any of you who know Pham Duy know that he still seems to be constantly on the move - to Paris, London, Hanoi, Saigon and all across North America. In this paper I want to talk about a few of the voyages in his earlier creative life, how they brought him into contact with historical events, and the insights he has given us into history, and into life.

If you haven't read it already, I would encourage all of you to read Pham Duy's memoirs of this time. They demonstrate a tireless love of Vietnam narrated by a man with an endlessly artistic temperament. He wrote many songs for the resistance like "Nhac tuổi xanh" (Song of Youth), "Khởi hành" (Departing), and "Nhớ người thương binh"(Missing the Wounded Soldier). These songs were written under Việt Minh leadership. Here he also came to understand socialist realism, where the arts aim to find subject matter in real life, and use the struggles of real life to create examples to motivate the people. This method can result in very didactic, one-dimensional depictions, but in Pham Duy's hands it has given us powerful, immortal images, because his examplars are real flesh and blood and because he captures the feelings of the situation.

Some of his most powerful songs date from an assignment he accepted to travel with a small artistic group from Thanh Hóa to Thừa Thiên in the 4th interzone. This voyage was extremely dangerous and took him into a region where terrible atrocities were occuring against the already impoverished villagers. This was a remote area in a time before satellites and global correspondents were prevalent, so these events went unreported. Pham Duy's songs are perhaps the best reportage that we have. I would make chapter 29 of his second volume of memoirs, where he narrates this voyage, required reading for students wanting to learn about Vietnam's 20th century history.

The circumstances under which he accepted this assignment are also very remarkable. He was newly engaged to his future wife, Thái Hằng, yet he felt compelled to go to convince his wife and his superiors that he was serious and would give up his "playboy" life. This trip resulted in several very powerful songs - "Bao giờ anh lấy được đồn tây" (When You Take the French Post), "Về miến Trung" (Return to the Midlands), "Mười hai lời ru" (Twelve Lullabyes), and "Bà mẹ Gio Linh" (The Mother of Gio Linh). "Return to the Midlands" is a vivid description of a landscape that was undergoing countless hardships. "The Gio Linh Mother" is the story of the mother of a resistance fighter who was beheaded by the French. The mother went to the market to retrieve her son's severed head. This scene is extremely powerful and moving - I've heard a radio interview with the singer Thái Thanh who describes being moved to tears every time she sings it. But more than the emotion of the event, the song is a lasting testimony to love and bravery in times of incredible hardship and danger. After completing this mission he returned to Thanh Hóa and married. He soon took another trip on foot, this time with his new wife who was then pregnant, to Việt Bắc, where the cultural leadership of the Việt Minh invited him to participate in a major cultural conference ( Đại Hội Văn Nghệ ) in 1950. The leadership was very aware of the effectiveness and popularity of his songs. While this trip gave us no songs, it gave us the circumstance under which we have all of his subsequent songs. During these meetings, the senior composer Nguyễn Xuân Khoát told him of the leadership's decision to send him to an overseas festival in East Germany -- a tremendous honor, one that almost any of Pham Duy's fellow musicians in the resistance would have enthusiastically accepted. Pham Duy declined this offer saying that he couldn't go without his wife, feeling he should be with her when she gave birth. But reading his memoirs it seems that the real reason was his discomfort with the growing central artistic control of the Việt Minh leadership. The composer Tô Vũ has told me the story of when he was sent to find Pham Duy and tell him that the leadership had relented and agreed to allow his wife go with him if he would go to Germany. Tô Vũ was unable to meet him, but insists that if he had, Pham Duy would have remained with the resistance. I personally don't think that he would have.

Upon returning again to Thanh Hóa the artistic atmosphere had changed dramatically. General Nguyễn Sơn who had been very supportive of artists and intellectuals had been relieved, and the new leadership was more interested in enforcing discipline. According to one source I've interviewed, Pham Duy and his family found themselves sometimes under house arrest. This change in conditions, in addition to a concern for his wife and new-born son led him to leave the resistance and return to Hanoi.

The next great move in Pham Duy's life was in fact an anticipation of the general transfer of population from the North to the South that occurred in the early to mid 1950s. In his memoirs, he wrote that in 1950 in Việt Bắc he knew that the Việt Minh would eventually defeat the French, thus he must have had a premonition that he would be leaving the victorious side, and was probably uncertain about whether in the future he would be able to return to Hanoi, his place of birth. This voyage from North to South, one that he would share with nearly a million of his countrymen and women, is expressed through songs like "Tình hoài hương" (Longing for home), "Tình ca" (Love song), "Thuyền viễn xứ" (Boat to Distant Lands), etc... "Tình hoài hương" is a snapshot of an ideal Vietnam, an ideal homeland. But the homeland of this song is one that the narrator regrets has already been been lost to him. "Tình ca" is a love song to this Vietnam, its language, its geography, and its people. But this is a consciousness that becomes urgent with the backdrop of a country at war, on the verge of separation. Given all that Vietnam had gone through, all that it was going through, how would all of this survive? Pham Duy locates his nation's survival through its language, through a mother's lullabye, a sentence from Kiều, through a young girl's smile, through the stoic labor of poor farmers.

By 1954 there were two Vietnams. In the face of this difficult situation Pham Duy wrote a song of an imaginary and then impossible voyage across the length of Vietnam from North to South - his "Con đường cái quan" -- "The Mandarin Road." Pham Duy had earlier made a similar journey under very different circumstances as a member of the Đức Huy cải lương troupe in 1944. The voyager of this song cycle was also a singer, but he travelled not to entertain, but to meet and re-unite the people he encountered across the length of the country. This work is considered a masterwork and I believe its power comes from the difficult circumstances that produced the emotions of living in a divided country.

Another positive result of Pham Duy's experiences travelling around the country are his researches on folk song. I was first aware of Pham Duy from reading his book Musics of Vietnam (Đặc khảo về dân nhạc ở Việt Nam) and from the two recordings he produced for an American record label, Folkways Records. He composed new folksongs reflecting this understanding, and helped to sustain and develop Vietnam's traditional music. He also travelled to America to help spread understanding about Vietnam and its music.

Neil Jameson's book Understanding Vietnam recounts an appearance by Pham Duy on American television during one of these visits. One this occasion he sang for the audience his song "On Behalf of" [Nhân danh]. I'll play you an excerpt of this song. It's a disturbing song, seemingly of a murderous hatred that grows gradually more devastating.

[Vì giữ mình tôi phải giết một người
Vì gia đình tôi phải giết muời người...
Vì xóm làng tôi phải giết ngàn người ]
[In self-defense I must kill one person
For my family I must kill ten people
For my village I must kill a thousand people]


Jameson writes:

The final line was sung harshly, out of cadence. After a moment of stunned silence the shocked audience began to applaud. But Pham Duy, master showman, cut off the applause as it approached its peak. Loss and destruction, he told them, are only to be regretted, never applauded nor prized. He then began to sing again, providing a new perspective:

[Vì giữ mình tôi phải cứu, ...]

"For my defense I must save, must save, save one man, save one man..."

This is a Pham Duy very aware of war's destruction, the desensitivation that may come with endless violence. One of his most disturbing songs was written during his second visit to the United States in 1970. This was a time when the American public came to learn of the incident known as the "Mỹ Lai massacre." This is one of pivotally dark moments in my country's history. We Americans have always imagined ourselves as the "good guys" in white hats coming to the rescue to make the world a better place. Suddenly we had to face the fact that there were circumstances under which our countrymen could commit terrible atrocities. Pham Duy found himself in a New York hotel room, on the one hand far from the war in his homeland, on the other hand through newspapers and magazines, in the midst of America's terrible self-realization.

The song he wrote in this situation, entitled "Kể chuyện đi xa" (Telling Stories from a Voyage) is about the reunion of a father and his children after a trip abroad. The song in this performance opens with an ironic trumpet fanfare -- the children's father, beloved and respected has returned like a hero. But he doesn't feel like a hero. The circumstances he has found in the world have made him feel defeated. The children in their innocence wheedle him: "Daddy, daddy, you've travelled alot! Where have you gone? What things have you seen? Tell us some stories daddy". We hear a voice, fatigued by an awful awareness of the world's injustice, first telling of all the wondrous things he heard and seen. He then has to contrast this with the world's ugliness - "Mỹ Lai has become a Christmas present." He can imagine all of the people taking advantage of the war for personal gain, selling guns, and smuggling.

There's a saying in Vietnamese - "Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn" - "Travel out one day and learn a basket of knowledge". On this trip, Pham Duy's basket became too full, and too tattered. He concludes "If I keep going? I'll just feel sadder!" [Cha có đi hoài, chỉ buồn thêm thôi ]. But to me this song is very striking and very timely, because it speaks to the modern condition for all of us. While he's singing about circumstances at a particular time in his native land, he is addressing our common dilemma. He faces up to the realization that mankind, despite all of its claims to progress and civilization, is capable of unspeakable cruelty and violence, sometimes even without an awareness of what it's doing. And mankind seems to have no ability to stop this inhumanity. I definitely see this in the world of "9-11", the conflicts in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, Africa, and many other places. For that reason Pham Duy has written a powerful song that crosses cultures, and speaks to the persistent problems of the modern condition.

But I don't want to end on a tone of despair. There is another place that Pham Duy has travelled to, while it's not distant in space, it is very distant in experience from these other journeys. This is the voyage to paradise. Despite all of the dangers and hardships that may buffet any of us, there is always the possibility of love and its pleasures. Pham Duy has written so much and so well about this more intimate voyage I won't even try to list the songs. But I do think in particular of the song "Giết Người Trong Mộng" (Farewell to the Nightmare) written at nearly the same time as the preceding song. In this shared journey to an Eden:

We'll lead each other into paradise's realm
Back to a place of long rivers and deep waters
We'll love one another on an expanse of wild grass
[Ta đưa nhau tới cõi địa đàng
Về một nơi sông dài nước rộng
Ta yêu nhau trên bãi cỏ hoang ]


I think that Pham Duy's importance comes from the fact that he can both look the nightmare in the eyes, and turn his back on the nightmare and find a world of fulfilled desire.

At the close of "Kiều", Nguyễn Du writes that:
"Chữ tài liền với chữ tai một vần " (3248)
"The words talent and adversity rhyme"

In other words, the bearer of talent will meet adversity. Pham Duy has certainly encountered adversity - he witnessed the hardships of war, he was forced to leave his homeland twice. Yet Pham Duy translated adversity into songs that bring understanding, and, even on some level, meaning to a difficult period of history. Pham Duy has written so many songs on so many topics from so many points of view that I know that there are those critical of him for inconsistencies, or for not faithfully adhering to a given philosophy or ideology.

Yet I see a clear consistency throughout his work - a love of his land, a love of his people, and I think a larger love of life and a love of humanity. I like the words he intended to write in his song "Viễn du" [Long Journey]:

Phiêu du
Khắp nẻo đây đó… bỗng người say sưa
Thấy hoàn cầu mơ khúc đại đồng ca
[Drifting away
In all directions, here and there, with sudden ecstasy
Seeing the whole world dreaming a song of Universal mankind]


Pham Duy's songs, while perhaps they belong to the Vietnamese people, are important to all of us. They bring us all an understanding of humanity, in the worst and in the best of times.


Jason Gibbs