Pham Duy 2010



by Dale R. Whiteside

It seems remarkably and regrettably easy for us to overlook certain inevitable aspects of humanity in those with whom we are engaged in strife. Far beyond the scholarly contribution which the present volume makes, lies the all-important perception of human life. It is in this realm that the folklorist and ethnographer works. The forms which life takes vary widely from culture to culture, even within a culture, but the total message conveyed to us as we observe or read is one of kinship among peoples. Pham Duy long before the present conflict in Vietnam, spent years acquainting himself with his people from North to Central to South, carrying music to them, taking their music away with him. Song lyrics provided him, as they will provide us, with a pulse through which to sense the heart of the diverse groups comprising his country. We find strong traditions in all areas of Vietnamese music, pointing up an affection of long standing:

This volume is the first book-length English-language publication treating Vietnamese music. It is offered as an introduction in the belief that scholars from numerous disciplines, as well as artistic temperaments of all sorts, will find it valuable. The book does not pretend to exhaust the subject, rather to serve as inspiration and impetus to scholars and devotees of the genre. The translation from Vietnamese to English proved a gargantuan task, since the few bilingual persons available to us were neither completely fluent in English nor versed at all in the study of music and its attendant lexicon. The work is not offered as a traditional scholarly treatment-it is undeniably the fruit of a consuming love affair between Pham Duy and his very musical homeland.

Certainly it is difficult for the people of Vietnam to sing joyously today. As editor I extend my sincere hope that very soon they may know the peace and tranquility which inspired the lines:

You climb a high mountain
Your face to the front
Like the new rising moon
Your bosom to the front
Like the rising sun . . .



by Stephen Addiss

This book is the work of a collector of folklore. The man, the creator, is presented in this capsule of his biography. We include it to bring hirn to life for the reader, for we feel that such is the nature of folklore

The rain on the leaves
is the tears of joy
of the girl whose boy returns from the war;
the rain on the leaves
is the bitter tears
when a mother hears her son is no more . . .

The man who wrote this song is a Vietnamese composer, folksinger, and folklorist named Pham Duy. He is an ebullient and expressive man of fifty who now lives in Saigon with his wife and eight children; he is a man with a gift for communication through his songs and through his person. When he talks, his hands mould the air into patterns that reflect his meanings; his face lights up and changes from moment to moment. Soon there are no walls, no reserves to be broken down, no matter what the ages or the cultural differences of his listeners.

His gift is a rare one in Vietnam, but just as rare as anywhere else in the world. He is small, intense, sparkling; there is something of a Charles Aznavour in him, and something of the electric enthusiasm of a Pete Seeger on stage. Most of all he is himself, the most popular musician in a war-torn country that needs him more than it needs its armies.

He says that he has retired from performing, and no managers lure him out into commercial concerts, but he finds himself singing whenever asked by students, soldiers, farmers, and refugees. He always teaches as he sings, teaching in his music the deep expression of his country to people who feel it but cannot get it into words. In a land where men are divided by region, politics, religion, education, and even in their hopes, he finds the task of the artist to be the harmonization of society, bringing together people so torn apart by their differences that they forget what they have in common.

Pham Duy's life is in itself a history of Vietnam over the past forty-five years. He was born in Hanoi to a novelist father and a poetess mother. He remembers from his earliest days being brought up on the songs and legends of the Vietnamese people, such as the following:


Let us remember the old stories of our people,
from the time the world was dark.
First, the mother of us all laid one hundred eggs,
giving birth to one hundred children of the same family.
Fifty went to the mountains, clearing the forest, dividing the land, and building the houses on log pilings.
The other fifty went down from the mountains to the rivers,
coming to the low ground and founding the rice fields.
Nowadays the forests meet the clouds,
the leaves greet the spring,
and we all come together to meet each other....

After trying several respectable jobs in Hanoi and finding them meaningless to him, Pham Duy left his family as a young man to travel around the country with a drama and music troupe. The troupe was not large, and it reached many small towns in the countryside, where he listened to local songs and learned of the constant concern of most of the Vietnamese people: the land and the rice.


At the sunrise, the rice field seems immense;
the shadows of men appear and disappear on the land.
We take small and even steps to carry the heavy load;
The song goes up and down:
Oh villagers, oh villagers
it is the joyful voices of men and women at dawn,
it is the joyful song on the way to the morning market.

In these days, just before the Second World War, Vietnam was seeing its last real period of peace. There were, of course, nationalistic agitators against the French rule, but as a whole the society was concerned more with its age-old ways. People sang lullabies, work songs, and especially love songs. Pham Duy remembers singing "The Wind on the Bridge" to the delight of local audiences:

Loving you, I take off my hat and give it to you.
When I come home, my parents ask
"Where is you hat?"
I say "The wind was blowing on the bridge,
and I lost my hat."
Loving you, I take off my dress and offer it to you.
When I come home, my parents ask
"Where is you dress?"
I say "The wind was blowing on the bridge,
and I lost my dress."

It was at this time that Pham Duy began collecting the songs of each region of Vietnam. The music differed completely from North to Center to South, and each district had its own songs and dances. In the North, a form of recited poetry called Hat a Dao had been popular for seven centuries, although it now no longer featured village competitions (reminiscent of Die Meistersinger except that girls were the principal singers) and now was primarily sung in the cities. In the Center, there was ancient court music still being performed; Hue is still considered the cradle of Vietnamese music. In the South, Pham Duy found the immensely popular Vong Co, or theater songs, springing from a folksong source.

World War II and the Japanese occupation of Vietnam brought an end to the old form of life; Vietnam has yet to stabilize a new one. In 1945 Vietnamese nationalism was greatly stimulated by the knowledge that the French could be beaten, and Pham Duy joined the front of forces known as the Viet Minh. He was immediately made a member of the cultural teams that the Viet Minh organized to mobilize public opinion and to encourage its soldiers. Soon the songs began to reflect the warfare. Many of the tunes were those of old songs with new verses. A love song that began "We searched for each other in the blooming flower, in the sunshine, in the breeze, in the moonlight" became: "We searched for each other in the bomb and in the fire, in the suffering, in the widow at her husband's grave." But new tunes were also created. Composers or musicians went everywhere with the soldiers, and led the same difficult life. Occasionally, however, the performers were sent to the villages to entertain and instruct those left behind. In "Gio Linh,'' Pham Duy set a true story to music, and this song shows both the expressive and didactic nature of the music of the Viet Minh.


The old mother digs the ground to plant potatoes,
to nourish her son who is fighting the enemy day and night. Her dress is ragged and there is not enough to eat.
The enemy has burned the house
and we plan to avenge ourselves.
The mother is proud of her son, a good fighter,
and she works very hard.
Her son enjoys going to battle.
The old mother has only this one son,
but her love of country is not inferior to anyone's.
At night, hearing the sound of battle,
she prays for her son.
The old mother is watering the vegetables
when she hears the shouts of the villagers.
The enemy has caught her son
and now they conduct him to the marketplace
and they cut off his head.
The mother is speechless.
She goes forward to get the head of her son,
her eyes full of tears.
"Ah, I love my son.
Though his mouth is bloody,
there is a smile on his face and his eyes look at me."
The old mother prepares the tea every night,
looking for someone.
The guns thud and widows and orphans shudder.
Everyday I come to visit the old mother,
to sit by the hearth.
She cooks a pot of potatoes and the smoke is like incense. She misses her boy,
but now she has a village-full of adopted sons to look after. Oh my friends, let us finish our cups of tea
and go to visit the old mother.

The Viet Minh used songs for every purpose. Before the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when soldiers hauled artillery on their backs up mountain slopes, singers stood by the paths, singing artillery-hauling songs specially composed for the occasion. The French did not believe that artillery could be brought near enough to reach their positions, and it was success in this unglamorous task of portage that made the Viet Minh victory possible. When peace came after the Genevea Conference, Pham Duy went to France for two years. He studied musicology and theory and returned to Vietnam better prepared to become the musical conscience of his people. He lived in South Vietnam where a million refugees bring the accent, the songs, and the beauty of their Northern region which differs from the beauties of the Central mountains and the Southern delta. Pham Duy now found in the South a different music scale in use. The North and Center use a pentatonic scale which came from China, a five-note gamut made up of whole tones and minor thirds, simple and regal in character. (One can find this pentatonic scale by playing the black keys on a piano.) Its mood is happy or stately.

In the South, this scale changes under the influence of Indian and Polynesian music, the former coming from Cambodia, the latter coming from minority ethnic groups. Eight hundred years ago, South Vietnam was the kingdom of Champa, a powerful state that rivaled the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia. Some of the large-scale battles between these peoples are illustrated on the reliefs at Angkor. The Vietnamese slowly spread down from the North, driving the Cham people into the mountains, where there are now only a few left to compete with the many other ethnic minority groups of the highlands. The Vietnamese have traditionally ascribed the sad scale of the South to Cham influence. This scale is of five tones arranged in a different mode, used in a way that the tones seem to "bend" and slide; half-tones prevail, and a somber and evocative mood is dominant. But Vietnam was now torn by the war, and Pham Duy was also composing. His songs at this time were "heart songs," a kind of modern folk music meant to speak to the hearts of the Vietnamese people.

Our foe is not a man, for if we kill, who is left to live?
Our foe has a name and his name is "ism";
His name is "stupidity," his name is "hatred";
His name is "fear," his name is "evil ghosts",
He is no foreigner, he is inside ourselves . . .

In the past few years, Pham Duy has been busier than ever before. In addition to collecting and composing songs, he has worked as a motion picture director (in Vietnam artists-intellectuals do double duty), published articles and recently a book on many kinds of Vietnamese music, and sung at innumerable concerts all over South Vietnam. Nowadays Pham Duy produces programs for the radio and for the new television channel, composes, and advises student musical groups. He feels it is his job to unify rather than help divide people. Perhaps his most significant contribution has been in encouraging students to talk and sing together, and to write their own songs. Even in the past five years there has been a great increase in this kind of activity, and now all over the country one can find Vietnamese getting together with a direct and meaningful expression. The new songs do not ignore the painful realities of Vietnamese life. As Pham Duy says, folk songs must reflect the past but also hold a mirror to the present.


Hand up, that's the cue, hand down, that's the cue Tragicomedy now begins anew.
The playwright seems to sleep, bitter actors weep,
Each one finds a task, each face wears a mask,
All direction's gone, still the play goes on,
Actors you and me, tragicomedy . . .

It has been said that folk songs can show a part of a country usually hidden by official pronouncements and day-to-day activity. Americans have been given a great deal of war news from Vietnam, as well as politicomilitary theories built like a house of cards. Perhaps we can learn more from a man like Pham Duy, who shows in folk music some of the long-term aspects of Vietnamese life. The love of the land that informs almost all of the songs seems to indicate that more land reform, but not collectivization, is needed. The regional divisions in the music hint at the need for a broadly based government. Above all in these songs one can sense the feeling for the life-cycle that underlies Vietnamese existence.

The rain on the leaves is the cry that is torn
from a baby just born'
as life is begun;
the rain on the leaves
is an old couple's love
much greater now
than when they were young . . .