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The Life and Music of Trịnh Công Sơn

"Đời và nhạc Trịnh Công Sơn ", Đặng Tiến, 2001. Translated by Jason Gibbs.


Trịnh Công Sơn hails from Huế, Minh Hương village, and is of Chinese ancestry. Minh Hương has since merged with Bao Vinh to become Hương Vinh commune. A long time ago Bao Vinh was Huế's harbor.

He was born February 28, 1939 in Lạc Giao, Đắc Lắc province, growing up in a merchant family in the Huế city center. He had many siblings--three boys, five girls--and he was the eldest. Although they had their ups and downs, it must be said that they were well off.

Trịnh Công Sơn studied the French curriculum at a French secondary school in Huế up to the 2nd level. That year, 1955, one of his classmates was the singer Kim Tước (Professor Decoux, who taught science now and then brought his violin to class, playing to accompany his students sing). Back then Trịnh Công Sơn could play the guitar well. When the school closed moving to Đà Nẵng, Trịnh Công Sơn occasionally studied on the Providence School in Huế. Then he moved to Saigon, studying at the Jean Jacques Rousseau School. After that he studied at the Qui Nhơn Pedagogical School, then taught for a few years in Lâm Đồng.

He taught himself music and has recounted:

Back then I was a youngster who liked to sing. At ten I knew solfeggio, I hand copied songs that I liked making a notebook, played the mandolin and the bamboo flute. At twelve I had the first guitar of my life and from then on used the guitar as the usual way to accompany myself singing. I didn't arrive at music as someone choosing a career. I remember that I wrote my first songs as a natural response to emotional urges inside of me... That was in 1956-1957, a time of mixed up dreams, of foolish, frivolous, imaginary voyages. During that green youth, like the first fruit of the season, I really loved music, but I can say that within me it absolutely never evoked in me the desire to become a composer... Around that time I lost my father... [1]

Some questions a curious person might ask are: for somebody who only studied in French schools, with their very informal and limited teaching materials, when setting lyrics, how could he use the Vietnamese language in such an accomplished manner? Occasionally he wrote short stories and reports--all published. Friends who received his letters, all recall that Sơn wrote well in a beautiful manuscript.

Self-taught at music, he composed on his own. Trịnh Công Sơn didn't belong to any compositional school like those who went before him, like Lê Thương and Hoàng Quý of the Đồng Vọng (Echo) group in Haiphong, like Thẩm Oánh and Dương Thiệu Tước of the Myosotis (Forget-me-not) group in Hanoi, the Hoàng Mai Lưu group in the South [2]. Similarly, later on he studied painting on his own.

A second question arising out of curiosity is: self-taught in music, then very early throwing himself into a life of composing and struggling, how could he continue to compose around 600 songs, a majority of which that are well-loved?

It's easy to say that Trịnh Công Sơn was a genius. But to become a genius in a land like Vietnam, to be recognized as a genius in a society like Vietnam--especially after the life-changing events of 1975--is truly not easy.

The goal of this essay is to explain the development of Trịnh Công Sơn's genius, decipher the phenomenon of Trịnh Công Sơn and to come to an understanding his position during the misfortunes of the nation, mostly during the years around 1975.

We'd also like to supply to researchers a few stray documents, in case one day they become hard to find, after the tears and cheers have subsided.

***


About the circumstances of his first compositions, Trinh Cong Son declared to Vĩnh Xương of the Đất Việt paper in 1985:

Up to 1957, I had written, I'd have to say, just for fun with my friends. After that I felt the inspiration to write a few pieces. In 1959 I wrote "Ướt mi" (Wet Lashes) and received some encouragement from my friends. Then I set around a dozen love poems to music (like "Nhìn những mùa thu đi" (Watch as Autumns Go)). In 1963, I had a few works that were fairly successful like "Diễm xưa" (Diễm of Long Ago), Biển nhớ (The Sea Remembers), Hạ trắng (Summer White). From that time I had started the road of composing." [3]

And from that time, Trịnh Công Sơn was famous.

***


When asking the question--how can a youth, quite young, who has only studied at French schools have such a gift for using the Vietnamese language--I have no prejudice because I too only studied at French schools. So I'll look for the creative source of his language.

Trịnh Công Sơn, perhaps--this is a cautious hypothesis--because he didn't study much Vietnamese literature at school at that time, didn't become a slave to the clichés of "examination rules," didn't think according to historical precedent, and thus was able to create a new structure for lyrics. These lyrics use many images, split apart symbols, and go directly into the listener's imagination, yet don't demand that he or she has to understand the exact meaning. For example the song "Tình sầu" (Melancholy Love):

Love is distant like the sky
Love is close like smoky clouds
Love is deep like a tree's shadow
Love cheers like sunlight
Sad love form passion
...Love climbs to dizzying heights
Like a bird with tired wings
Like a bird that has shunned the flock, has shunned the sky
Like a bird that has abandoned its flight path.

The organic coherence of the song is not based on the interrelation of meanings: "love, distant like the sky" makes sense, but if it's near, why is it like clouds? "A love climbing to great heights", why then "like a bird wings weary"? "Love cheering happily in sunlight'," should correspond with "sad love of passing rain" to be correct, why would there be passion?

Actually, the organic coherence is structured upon linguistic form: repeated words: love, bird, like; rhymes: mây (clouds), cây (trees), say (passion), bay (fly); and oppositions: far / near, happily / sadly. Images follow each other, with no need to concur with reason, and receive a cadence, notes for support, and they soar, soar into the imagination of the listener.

We can make some comparisons--in order to understand, not to make determinations about what is better--with similar lyrics by Đoàn Chuẩn:

Send wind to blow the clouds over.
Send butterflies in myriad colors back to the flowers
Send more moonlight in the letter's blue hue
Back here with autumn of this existence.
[4]

The two songs are rather similar because they both use threaded metaphors, but the passages by Đoàn Chuẩn and Từ Linh are composed according to semantics and convention, according to literary allusion: wind+clouds, butterflies+flowers, wind+moon, moon+autumn. The novel feature of "the letter's blue hue" is effaced among the conventions that are linked into a solid threading, so tight that it loses its poetic quality. There are also lines written in the very proper seven-beat meter of the classics:

Golden leaves from each branch / fall down one by one.
Fall down in sad silence / upon the ancient ground.

The song "Send Wind To Blow The Clouds Over" is very good, but it's different sort of good, and is loved by a different audience.

Phạm Duy, when he was young, had some novel creations:

Returning sail, pour sunlight upon a pair of shoulders
How much of the flower's color perfumes a pair of lips
("Tiếng đàn tôi" (Sounds of My Guitar), 1947)

Afterwards he returned to rational language:

When will you come back to the mulberry garden (my love).

It's a wonderful line: a mulberry garden is a distant yearning of a civilization that has died off. But Pham Duy adds the following line:

So I can connect the wood to build a bridge (for me) to step across.
("Quê nghèo" (Poor Home Village), 1948)

The idea has narrowed the thought. The lyric becomes superficial, and limited in its resonance. (I've had a chance to present this idea to Phạm Duy. He laughed and said: "is that so?")

The works of Lê Thương, profound in their music as well as their lyrics, are loved across the generations. Trịnh Công Sơn wouldn't write ornate lines like Lê Thương:

At Man Khê still thrown to the wind's vast dark dust
At Tiêu Tương still regretting a place oceans away
("Hòn vọng phu" (The Waiting-for-Her-Husband Stone))

But he did write:

Cattle carts enter the city
Sadly sound the clappers of their bells
(...)
Cattle carts seek the river
But its current has dried up
The herd suddenly feels sad, suddenly feels sad...
("Du mục" (Nomads))

Such images go beyond the imagination of Lê Thương - the king of lyricists according to Pham Duy's appraisal.

Coming to modern music (tân nhac) with a fresh spirit, Trịnh Công Sơn gradually built a new musical language, smashing up the cliches of reformed music (nhạc cải cách) that had come into being only twenty years earlier.

***


Trịnh Công Sơn was self-taught at music, not trained according to a regulating system. When he began to compose, after receiving encouragement, he "began to exchange information about music theory with friends," though he's never clearly said with who.

The second question of someone curious is: studying music on his own, from what musical resources did he draw from to compose so much, so quickly, and so well?

Many say that his works are simple in their musical structure. To say they're impoverished would also work.

Văn Cao has observed:

"In Son's music, one doesn't see a trace of classical music according to the refined structures of the west. Son writes unaffectedly as if the sensation of music and poetry both overflowed from him." [5]

Music written in such an easy and unaffected way was a response to the times. According to Phạm Duy:

Regarding the music itself, none of Trinh Cong Son's songs are mannered or intricate because they are set upon a few simple melodies that were really in keeping with the sound of sighing during those times. [6]

An average listener who esteemed Trịnh Công Sơn wrote after he passed away: "Adding everything up, Trinh Công Sơn was a poet. A great poet. Music was a vehicle that he assembled to deliver his poetry to us" (Vũ Thư Hiên, Warsaw, April 2001). This observation is not correct, but it's typical.

Even allowing for a monotonous musical technique, one still must acknowledge his talent, in part due to study, in part innate. A rose is beautiful because of the rose bush, but it also depends on the ground, the fertilizer, rain and sunlight, the person taking care of it, and even the person regarding it. Only then would a rose have the beauty of a rose. Even if here it is only a blossom beyond the ordinary (đoá hoa vô thường).

I'll try to recall the time that gave birth to Trịnh Cong Sơn's talent.

When he was 15, 1954, the Geneva Accords divided the country and both the South and the North were embodied by new political and cultural circumstances.

In the South, Western culture flooded into the marketplace. Certainly it would have had a strong influence upon a 15 year old.

French books, periodicals, and records were frenziedly imported into Vietnam every day, their actual price actually lower than Paris owing to subsidized exchange. And this was the time of the invention and development of paperback books and micro-groove records, distributed widely upon new means of broadcast. Before that, even though Vietnam was a French colony, French literature only was imported through schools and the teaching material stopped in the late 19th century. Someone well-read like Xuân Diệu didn't know Apollinaire. After 1954 French culture--and Western culture--entered directly into the marketplace. The public read Francoise Sagan in Saigon at the same time as Paris. On the streets, especially in cafes, people discussed Malraux, Camus, even Faulkner, Gorki, Husserl and Heiddeger.

The author Bửu Ý, a friend of Trịnh Công Sơn--he studied two years ahead of Sơn at the Lycée Francais in Saigon--sang Les Feuilles Mortes at the same time as Juliette Greco, La Vie En Rose at the same time as Edith Piaf, Barbara at the same time Yves Montand. At the same time Thanh Tâm Tuyền translated Jacques Prevert's Barbara, which was published in the journal Creation (Sáng Tạo), and the young author Nguyễn Xuân Hoàng resounded forth with Barbara. Nguyễn Trần Kiềm, a classmate of Sơn, when travelling by cyclo, shaded himself from the sun with Sartre's books.

People have questioned the titles of song of Trịnh Công Sơn's songs as being mannered, like "Mưa hồng" (Pink Rain), "Tuổi đá buồn" (Age of Sad Stone), at the same time that Thanh Tâm Tuyền wrote "Đêm màu hồng" (Rose Colored Evenings), which later became a celebrated tea-room. He also wrote "Lệ đá xanh" (Tears of Green Stone), which famed painter Đinh Cường, a close friend of Trịnh Công Sơn, painted in an abstract painting, etc...

Side by side with books and periodicals, western cultural organizations opened their doors: the United States Information Agency, the German Cultural Center... naturally with the political activities of the cold war that we can't go into here--we only want to emphasize the Western cultural influence of that time in Southern intellectual life. Words like "Sad Sunday afternoon, lying in a gloomy room... hey I'm still lonely," then like "A sad Sunday, is there anyone, anyone: ... A sad age You carry in nothingness, days past indifference..." One cannot not recall the song "Sombre dimanche" (Sad Sunday) by Seress Rezso--I've heard it said that people committed suicide because of that song. Or because of the "nothingness," "loneliness," "indifference" that were widespread for a time. In the essay "Nỗi lòng của tên Tuyệt Vọng" (The Heart of The One Named Without Hope) he revealed "I've long enjoyed philosophy, and for that reason I've wanted to bring philosophy into my songs." An example like "Deep rolling traces carved into the stone" that he call the stray stone (roche errante). People who sing this don't understand a thing - but still they like to sing it! But calling it "rolling stones" isn't far off.

Trịnh Công Sơn's songs give rise to thoughts that respond to the legitimate intellectual requirements of a minority and the ordinary intellectual illusions of a majority, including the young ladies and gentlemen of the "Personals" section of the newspapers, who introduce themselves as "loves purple" and "the music of Trịnh", or "TCS music".

At that time Nguyễn Văn Trung wrote the article "The Spectre of Thanh Thúy."[7] If he'd addressed the specter of Trịnh Công Sơn, he could have also written a good article.

Trịnh Công Sơn's music is simple - a shortcoming that has lead to its success. Phạm Duy observed of Trịnh Công Sơn: "His songs just need a guitar for accompaniment. If the arrangement was too florid, it wouldn't fit with his songs written in ballad form." So there was a different requirement for those times: people like Georges Brassens and Joan Baez were reknowned for their guitars. Trịnh Công Sơn's songs could be sung for a couple of listeners, or before a massive audience. They go right into their audience, especially the youth. They're different from the music of the tearooms with their combos and singers, and with their audiences that go to listen to (and watch) singers more than to listen to songs.

Trịnh Công Sơn's music is not symphonic. Such compositional masters of music theory of Vietnam of those days, like Vũ Thành, Văn Phụng and Nghiêm Phú Phi had no audience.

Trịnh Công Sơn had the talent to make music, compose words, and also to know how to feel the pulse of the times, to truly live as part of his generation, in the heart of his nation, and in the world's musical scene. With that much accumulated talent, to call him a genius is not too extreme.

***


In analyzing the layers of sediment that have overflowed into his musical current through cultural interchange, Trịnh Công Sơn spoke of some outside influences:

When I was little I really liked pre-war music (nhạc tiền chiến), and I heard some foreign music. During the 1960s I listened to blues music, which addressed the condition of the black people in America. I really liked the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington... I felt close to that kind of music, and felt that I could take that kind of music to express my own personal feelings." [8]

Also in that issue of Đất Việt, he told more about this influence: "During the years 1964-1966, my works had a blues quality, and during the years 1967-72 they had much more of a folksong quality."

"Folksong quality" here must be understand according to the meaning of the folk songs of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at that time. Both of these famed singers are two years older than Sơn and are of the same generation and had the same anti-war ideal, and they shared a guitar and a melody. "Folk song" here is not the riverine work song, nor the rice grinding song of his homeland [9]. National folk music during his beginning stage seemingly had little influence upon him. Trịnh Công Sơn's songs on a lullaby theme show little influence of Vietnamese lullabies.

Afterwards, on occasion one can recognize a little bit Huế folk song influence, like in "Thuở Bống là người" (When Bống was a person), or of a native lullaby, like in "Lời mẹ ru con" (A mother's words of lullaby to her child). But these are just exceptions and not representative.

Recently books and newspapers have cited this sentence of Trinh Cong Son's:

I'm just an itinerant singer passing this realm singing my presentiments about dreams of an illusory life.

But we must understand "itinerant singer" according to its contemporary meaning: this isn't the blind singer in the market, singing about "The Fall of the Capitol" ("Thất thủ kinh đô") on Đông Ba street, that Huy Cận has depicted, but the image of contemporary troubador, the itinerant balladeers in Bob Dylan's songs from the point of view of his "Never Ending Tour" (1988). The poet Tô Thùy Yên who likes to preach of the rectification of names has spoken clearly about this, calling Trịnh Công Sơn an "authentic troubador":

A troubadour is a special artist who stands between music and poetry, or more precisely, a troubador is a poet more than a composer.

Troubadours usually appear and stand out in eras seen as uncertain and tumultuous, eras when the peoples' voices have been drowned out, the peoples' freedoms have been coerced, the value of human life has been lowered, the peoples' happiness has been seized and the people's desires have been enclosed.

As a result the works of a troubadour are works that are out of breath, easy going, rough, works that come into being during a provisional time, works that are letters copied in a hurry on a random scrap of paper, and that are let loose to fly away with the changing times.

With "Cõi tạm" (Transcience) [10], during the haphazardness of this time where people scamper to grab and snatch at the opportunity to buy odds and ends, to cheaply buy a bit of vainglory, if there is still someone to write words like that, it's both serious and confidential. Especially when writing for someone of a different faction.

Văn Cao is someone well-versed in literary knowledge. In casual conversation, he said: "Sơn is a talented troubadour." But when he wrote about Trịnh Công Sơn, he used the word "bard" (chantre), a more term with its meaning of "one who sings praises": "because Sơn has sung of the homeland, and the nation with the heart of child who has known happiness to the extremes of happiness and has known pain to the extremes of pain of his kind Mother's Fatherland."

A troubadour sings to bring entertainment to this mortal life, a bard sings "Lời buồn thánh" (Words of Sad Worship). However, Trịnh Công Sơn also called himself a troubadour, as in the name given to the exhibition of paintings he presented along with Đinh Cường and Bửu Chỉ at the Freedom Gallery in August 2000.

In 1969, his friend, artist Trịnh Cung, painted a beautiful painting called "Le troubadour" that sings to call out for peace. These stories are similar to each other.

When Phạm Duy called Trịnh Cong Son's songs "ballads," with no relation to the word "buffoon" (baladin), it also had a respectful meaning.

Each of these esteemed people are very talented, are deep thinkers and their hearts are expansive. Therefore their words are also liberal-minded.

***

Yesterday, moon bright and hazy
Going to bail water, I met You by chance
[11]

Vietnam's daughters of golden skin (Người con gái Việt Nam da vàng), long ago, if one of you sang that in a folk lyric, it would be to hide the yearning for love, because in rural life, how could anything happen "by chance."

In life in today's world, if you think about it, it's the same. Blues melodies, anti-war music by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the poetry of Prevert, Aragon, Eluard... Trịnh Công Sơn encountered them all - upon currents of music, currents of poetry, currents of thought. And upon currents of history, his people, the world, as well as in the great popular movements of humanity during the middle of the twentieth century: the great movement to liberate the people, the races and the classes. And don't forget about the liberation of women: French women also stormed the Bastille in 1789, but it was only in 1944 that they were given the right to vote.

With Vietnamese women it was the same: after waiting for her husband she turned to stone, then stepping into the 20th century she sat knitting his shirt. From "Buồn tàn thu" (Sadness at Autumn's Fading) by Văn Cao, to "Bếp lửa" (Kitchen Fires) by Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Ý Nhi's contemporary poetry, all the way up to the year 2000 with the song "Đêm xanh" (Blue Evening) by Bảo Chấn, she is still sitting, knitting his shirt even at the same time that sweaters sell for very little along the sidewalks.

Knitting a shirt is the image of patient, passive suffering at a man's request. Knitting a shirt for someone, it's to remember, to await someone. Trinh Cong Son's songs have many women, but we never see them knitting a shirt. They only ... sit at ease, at times tilting their shoulder, at times tilting their heads, at times tilting toward sadness. Bored with sitting at ease then they "Stand Up Calling Rain Into Summer" (Đứng lên gọi mưa vào hạ). If they cry it's only on those "Rainy Afternoons Atop High Peaks" (Chiều mưa đỉnh cao) ... And one day when they leave, then it's "Like Little Streams" (Như những dòng sông nhỏ).

Women for Trịnh Công Sơn have a simple beauty and an ordinary freedom. They are free in their lives, in their loves, even in their sexuality. Trịnh Công Sơn's music doesn't speak of sex, because speaking of it ... would serve what purpose?

The women who listen to and sing Trịnh Công Sơn's music are carefree. They just sing, or listen; they don't have to do anything at all. They don't have to "Pick Apricots," "Drive the Ferry," "Peddle Coffee," or "Peddle Tea" [12]. They don't have to change their clothes to become a "Mountain Lass," or the "Girl Next Store," or acquire the destiny of a "Soldier's Lover" [13]. And they especially don't have to ... take a husband: where happiness is unknown and all you hear are long, long laments lasting a half century: "You walked upon spent fireworks, I walked midst tears" [14]... "Dear, our true love has been interrupted, there's nothing else but to wait" [15] ... And on a different horizon, they must have the "three responsibilities," and the "three readinesses" [16], to be a "mother holding her rifle" [17], volunteering to remove mines at the "Đồng Loc crossroads" [18].

After 1975, when it was "I'm at the collective farm, you're going to the border," listeners had the feeling that Miss Tấm had become Miss Cám. Trịnh Công Sơn would cry out for "Oh Bống, Oh Bống" with Miss Tấm occasionally reappearing, but she had been remade quiet a bit [19].

In Vietnamese society right up to this time, it's not clear that women have been liberated, or properly respected. In Trịnh Công Sơn's songs they're both liberated and respected. They're respected, not cajoled; Trịnh Công Sơn very naturally understood and addressed that.

***


Regarding Trịnh Công Sơn's anti-war music, music demanding peace: many people are familiar with it, and many people write about this subject. Recently, during a remembrance event for Trịnh Công Sơn in California, Đỗ Ngọc Yến spoke clearly and accurately, differently than the Đỗ Ngọc Yến of 40 years ago, and 20 years ago.

I don't have enough time to write about this subject, but will touch upon it on another occasion. Now I will quickly say a couple of subjective ideas:

1.- No matter how one feels about it, Trinh Cong Son's music was a product of the Republic of Vietnam regime, with both the positive and negative aspects of that regime.

If there wasn't a South, there still could have been a Trịnh Công Sơn, but a different Trịnh Công Sơn, roughly like a Phạm Tuyên or a Phan Huỳnh Điểu.

2.- The Communist authorities, after 1975, after some investigation, employed a portion of Trịnh Công Sơn's music and skillfully used Trịnh Công Sơn. One could say that after 25 years their victories and successes are rare, if there are any in the communist authority's cultural policy, then it's in the reception of Trịnh Công Sơn's music and his services for the municipality of Hồ Chí Minh City. When using the word "policy" it's in order to look at the totality, but when it comes to an individual, probably there are only partial, temporary and incomplete decisions. However, they just followed the Soviet experience during the New Economic Policy (NEP) period. During the 1920s, after the Civil War, Lenin welcomed writers and poets who were 'fellow travellers' (popoutchiki) like Alexis Tolstoi or Zamiatine.

During the war of resistance against the French, the Communists couldn't win over Phạm Duy. After 1954 they couldn't win over Văn Cao [20]. But after 1975 they harvested Trịnh Công Sơn, and that was a success. A success of appearance, not of substance. Concerning substance, the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot accept anything other than itself, anything that it didn't create. On the other hand, Trịnh Công Sơn's songs both from before and recently don't fit the "standard" of the regulations of socialist realism. No matter how hard it tries an orange tree can't make lemons. The earlier "twenty years of civil war every day" [21] is a deviation, and today to ask if "Do you still remember or have you forgotten" (Em còn nhớ hay em đã quên) is still a deviation.

Accepting--although with limits--the echoes of a political regime that they have striven to wipe away, the Hồ Chí Minh City authorities through some sort of moderation have yielded to the public, have indirectly admitted that they lost in trying to block yellow music (nhạc vàng), and especially in trying to form a new basis of music to respond to the people. The central authorities in Hanoi decided to "wait and see", allowing Hồ Chí Minh City to "develop initiatives". If it turned into a mess, then bring about an order to a stop a "local decision"; if it's salubrious, then call off the troops and make a few noises of openness and agreement.

3.- From Trịnh Công Sơn's side, he skillfully reconciled himself with the new authorities. His remaining in Vietnam after 1975, working with arts and literature groups in Huế and later in Hồ Chí Minh City, made sense after he wrote "When the country's at peace, I go visit" [22]... That was his own free choice. Just like Nguyễn Trãi long ago, though a matrilinear grandson of the Trần, he gave no help to the resistance of the Late Trần, and worked with the Lam Sơn peasants. Or like Ngô Thời Nhâm, who for generations had enjoyed favor from Trịnh and Lê kings, yet worked for the shirts of the Tây Sơn rebellion. Since then one can understand when he wrote a few songs praising the new regime. The songs weren't very good and few people sung them, and few even knew. Perhaps that was lucky for him because he created a few lyrics that weren't good or necessary.

He was someone who recieved a good many premiums from the authorities, much more than the cadres who lived and died in the two wars. He could sing "Life gives us this" (Đời cho ta thế). In truth, life doesn't give anyone anything, it only barters. He had to pay the price, and at the time the price was quite high. If he didn't pay then someone else would have to. About this realization he wrote:

I've never had the ambition to become someone who writes famous songs. But if life offered me that gift then I couldn't not accept it. And once I accepted it then I had a responsibility to everyone.

He said it delightfully like that. It's simple in reality: people have given him bouquets and flasks of wine. But who gave him responsibility? He sang "Every day I choose a happiness" (Mỗi ngày tôi chọn một niềm vui), when his friend Thái Bá Vân, assistant director of the Hanoi Art Institute complained: "all year I haven't had a happy day." If you want to have a nice time, you must go to Saigon... hang out with Sơn. But at most it's a happiness like the fate of a caged bird, a fish in a vessel. Understood in that way, his friends didn't ask much of a weak performing artist, living and dying in the midst of a siege like him.

People appraise a writer through the works he has realized, not through the works that he "should have" realized. Because of that "should have," those who create arts and literature have been the victims of a good deal of unjust coercion, cruelty, and misjustice.

Not only because of his individual circumstances, but because of life's circumstances, the laws of justice, the laws of relativity, the laws of play, we should push to the side many of the "should haves" regarding Trịnh Công Sơn and just evaluate those things that he has done.

4.- Through 40 precarious years, Trịnh Công Sơn has made some great contributions to literature and the arts, to social life, and to political history. The largest part of his career was formed, and found success under the Republic of Vietnam regime as everyone knows. This essay has temporarily not addressed that yet.

Beyond his former audience who listened to Trịnh Công Sơn's music out of personal preference or to remember tidings of long ago, how has it been received by different audiences - the Vietnamese youth of today, or by Northerners before 1975?

In Vietnamese society today, Trịnh Công Sơn's songs have brought the substance of poetry into life. Looking back on a few CDs that have been recorded by many musicians, the collective titles often borrow their headings from Trịnh Công Sơn, like "Words of Thousand Autumns Calling" (Lời thiên thu gọi - by Hồng Nhung), "Sky, Please Sleep in Peace" (Xin mặt trời ngủ yên - Mỹ Linh). These are very resonant headings, with a strong poetic flavor. Then there are other composers like Dương Thụ, Phú Quang, Trần Tiến, and Bảo Chấn... all very talented, but who were trained and matured in a practical and pragmatic society. Their transcendent creative powers don't pose silly questions like "Where Will the Wave Go" (Sóng về đâu)? Because in truth: of the "waves," why ask "where will they go"? In some societies, asking a question like that one might face the peril of being locked up in the madhouse.

Socialist realism is very strict; it loves verse, a kind of versified prose, as long as this verse has a poetic quality. Poetry by the "meritorious official" Nguyễn Đình Thi is still rejected, then what can be said of the "submissive mandarin," Trịnh Công Sơn. Trịnh Công Sơn's songs slipped through their mesh, because they were a timely response to the "call of the void." And the songs of a light, frivolous style, frivolous, the authorities tolerated or supported them because of their ability to bring them to a stop at any time--like they did with Văn Cao's music long ago: they even threatened to change the National Anthem. And as they are doing with Phạm Duy today. On CDs recorded today in Vietnam, has anyone seen "Dreams of Returning Home" by Vũ Thành?[23]

The authorities tolerated or supported Trịnh Công Sơn's song, not for artistic motives, but like an ersatz, during a transitional time. Like when a doctor gives a sedative to an insomniac. While they wait, listeners get a blank slate for this or that day. They listen to the song "Where Will the Waves Go", one of the his last songs:

Ocean waves, ocean waves don't push me
Don't push me falling under someone's feet
Ocean waves, ocean waves don't push yourselves
If I push the ocean, where will the waves go?
The waves' hairs have turned white and the mountains are buried deep
I'll go back somewhere
Back to a place where clouds shroud my dreams

Socialist realism could create better songs for mankind. But to create something similar to this song, then there's no way. A genius is not someone who doesn't imitate anyone, but is someone that nobody can imitate.

5.- A proof of an artistic work's value is its ability to unite, widely and over a long time. Trịnh Công Sơn's music was sung all over the South before 1975; that we know. But before 1975, the North listened to and enjoyed this music, as Văn Cao has related [24]. Nguyễn Duy has told as well that along the Trường Son mountains the Northern army was also listening:

On the Route 9, the Southern Laos battlefront (1971)... in a bunker dwelling by the Xe Banghiang River... Listening... listening stealthily - yes sir, at that time it was called listening stealthily - to the Saigon station, by chance I "met" Trịnh Công Sơn through the Khánh Ly's. "Diễm of Long Ago" (Diễm xưa)... Rain still rain falls... how can you know that the stone stelae aren't pained... Quite devilish! That melody and those lyrics naturally 'fastened' upon my imagination from that unexpected moment. Then "Like the Night Heron's Wings Flying (Như cánh vạc bay)... Quite strange!... Unexpected feelings, those smooth, intoxicating songs... yes there's that sadness, that pain, that twisting tighter... but there was still something wholesome arising from it. It's like it's Beauty... Melancholy, vague, difficult to define, but clearly it's beauty, such beauty... And it's also some kind of spooky [25]...

Someone of ill will might smell a rat: Nguyễn Duy was a journalist with the authority to listen to the radio, and afterwards was a drinking buddy of Trinh Cong Son, it should be added. So here is different proof coming from a foot soldier who didn't know anything or anyone, who never waited upon Trịnh Công Sơn - the author Nguyễn Văn Thọ, now living in Berlin:

In 1972, when I was a foot soldier in the forests of the Truong Son mountains. A buddy of mine after the battle of Lam Sơn 719 snatched a really good Sony radio.

On those evenings in Trường Sơn, waiting until everyone went to sleep, we turned on the BBC and even the Saigon stations. This was the first time I heard Khánh Ly's voice with Trịnh Công Sơn's music.

We were of an age who grew up in the North and were familiar with grandiose musical works. Amidst the static of the airwaves I could hear a strange voice of a new kind of music. A passionate music, unclear from its words to its form. A kind of youthful music, unlike any kind of youthful music I had ever heard, not even on those old hand cranked recordings that we listened to throughout those lamentable days at the outdoor market on those days after the peace.

It's strange but for me at that time Trinh Cong Son's music was like a breath of wind from some far off place, detached from the rancour of the battle, a fervent love for one's fellow man, one's race, friends, peace, and truth. It was strange because the lyrics were non-linear and unlike the traditional manner of writing songs in Hanoi at that time.

Of even greater value, Thọ has noted his emotions when he advanced into Saigon and heard Trinh Cong Son singing "Open Our Arms Wide In a Great Circle (Nối vòng tay lớn) noontime on April 30, 1975 upon Saigon radio:

"The world is vast... brothers and sister we're home... meeting each other in this great storm spinning round and round in the vast sky..."

The singing was not a sound of challenge to fight to the death. The words were not the sounds of pools of blood like the ordinary end to a war, these words at that moment served to relax the atmosphere of resentfulness and spite.

We advanced into Saigon...
Open our arms wide in a great circle.

There's no war that never has a flip side, but the sound of that voice, that music, opened up for both sides sounded like an invisible dose of medicine that relaxed a time that could have easily flared up into anger.

That was my second memory of him."

A voice that relaxed the fingers holding the guns. One day, one hour when the lives of millions of people hung by a thread. How can an event like that not be momentous?

How many times have the arts and letters played such a role?

Afterwards, Thọ went to live in Germany as a guest worker where he still listened to Trinh Cong Son's music:

"Right after this, a couple of times to console myself, to sustain myself, I softly sang "Oh don't despair" (Tôi ơi đừng tuyệt vọng)... and several other song in many other situations, but I still remember each detail and thank Trịnh Công Sơn for that noon broadcast in Saigon on that day." [26]

On a different horizon, there are many people who blame Trịnh Công Sơn for going on the radio to sing "Open our arms wide in a great circle" on noon of April 30, 1975. In fact, whether he sang or not, the Republic of Vietnam would still have fallen. He sang, and cooperated with the new regime, even though it was to redeem a trace of the culture of the Republic of Vietnam that had produced him his talent and career, that even created the entire legend of Trịnh Công Sơn.

Once more, Nguyen Văn Trung, after "The Illusion of Thanh Thúy" if he had written "Trịnh Công Sơn, truth and legend" would think of many interesting things.

If anyone said that Trịnh Công Sơn is an imposter who would suffer shame for continuing the last breaths of the culture of a regime that had been put to death, then they are boasting, sensational, illogical and silly.

Silly like a few lyrics among Trịnh Công Sơn's works. But who knows what the truth is? The truth amongst so much silliness, even in history.

In 1984 Chế Lan Viên wrote: "Neo-colonialist culture is the child of neo-colonialism. If the armed forces and politics of neo-colonialism are dead, have expired, then they have become enthroned in culture." [28]

And Chế Lan Viên is not a silly person who writes silly things.

***


"Not far from life and not far from their grave..." [29]

Trịnh Công Son left this life at 12:45 in Saigon on April 1, 2001.

The funeral on the 4th of April I've heard was very large, with hundreds of garlands flooding the alley at 47 Duy Tân. Tens of thousands of people saw him off, and among those maybe there were those seeing off something else - perhaps a private feeling or yearning.

André Malraux said somewhere that "in Catholicism, only the statues are without sin." Trịnh Công Sơn lived almost half of his life in a political regime where even the statues weren't without sin.

The bouquets placed in front of your grave, not every bouquet was without sin.

Just now I'm able to cry for you. At my house, in the spot where you liked to sit and sketch, watching the little river, the river that I called the An Cựu (Peaceful Rest) River.

Oh Sơn, in this life, and in other lifes, how can there be two Rivers of Peaceful Rest.

Rest in peace Sơn.

Đặng Tiến
Orléans, 14.04.2001

Translated by Jason Gibbs,
September, 2009


[1] Trịnh Công Sơn. Nhạc va đời (Music and Life). Tồng hợp Hậu Giang publisher.
[2] Translator's note: Lê Thương was not a participant in the Đồng Vọng group. He taught music to Hoàng Quý and others at the Lê Lơi high school in Hải Phòng. The Hoàng Mai Lưu group was formed in the North at Hanoi University by southern students and consisted of lyricists Huỳnh Văn Tiểng, Mai Văn Bộ and the composer Lưu Hữu Phước.
[3] Đất Việt (Canada) June 1986. (Actually, the song "Ướt mi" was created in 1958, and published by An Phú in 1959).
[4] Translator: Lyrics to "Gửi gió cho mây ngày bay" by Đoàn Chuẩn and Từ Linh.
[5] Văn Cao. Epilogue to the collection Trịnh Công Sơn: Em còn nhớ hay em đã quên. Hồ Chí Minh City: Nhà xuất bản Trẻ, 1991, p. 115.
[6]Phạm Duy. Hồi ký thời phản chia quốc công. Midway City, CA: Phạm Duy Cường Publishing, 1991, p. 287.
[7] Thanh Thúy is a singer popular in the Republic of Vietnam and overseas who first found fame singing Trịnh Công Sơn's song "Ướt mi."
[8] Đất Việt, Canada, June 1986.
[9] Translator: The author references two traditional folk song styles (hò mái nhì and hò giã gạo) from Vietnam's Central region where Trịnh Công Sơn grew up.
[10] Translator: This song is also known as "Boarder" (Ở trọ).
[11] Translator: Words to a well-known ca dao or folk lyric.
[12] Translator: This sentence cites a series of well-known "pre-war" songs. "Girl Picking Apricots" (Cô hái mơ) is a setting of a Nguyễn Bính poem by Phạm Duy. "Girl Ferry Driver" (Cô lái đò) is another Nguyễn Bính setting by Nguyễn Đình Phúc. "The Girl Coffee Peddlar" (Cô hàng cà phê) was composed by Canh Thân. "The Girl Tea Peddlar" (Cô hàng nước) was composed by Vũ Huyến.
[13] Translator: This sentence cites other songs including "Smile of the Mountain Lass (Nụ cười sơn cước) by Tô Hải, "The Girl Next Door" (Cô làng giếng) by Hoàng Quý and "A Soldier's Lover" (Người yêu của lính) by Trần Thiện Thanh.
[14] Translator: The author cites a line from the song "Gợi giấc mơ xưa" by Lê Hoàng Long.
[15]Translator: The author cites a line from the song "Gợi giấc mơ xưa" by Lê Hoàng Long.
[16] Translator: "Ba đảm đang" and "Ba sẵn sàng" were two slogans applied to women in a rear position in North Vietnam during the war.
[17] Translator: The title story in the collection "Người mẹ cầm súng" by Nguyễn Thi (1965).
[18] Translator: The title of a poem by Huy Cận entitled "Ngã ba Đồng Lộc." The Đồng Lộc Crossroads achieved faming owing to tragic death of 10 young woman repairing the road in North Vietnam in a single American bombing raid on July 24, 1968.
[19] Translator: The author is refering to Trịnh Công Sơn's 1978 song "Em ở nông trường, anh ra biên giới", his song that comes closest to socialist realism. Tấm and Cám are sisters in a Cinderella-like story, the former being Cinderella and the latter her privileged, wicked sister. Bống is the magical goby who aids Tấm as well as the nickname for Hồng Nhung, a singer 30 years his junior who was close to Trịnh Công Sơn in his final decade.
[20] Translator: Phạm Duy was one of the most famous sơngwriters to leave the Việt Minh resistance (in 1951). Văn Cao, composer of Vietnam's national anthem ("Tiến quân ca" or "Advancing Army Song"), was involved with a group of writers and artists who advocated greater artistic liberty known as Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm (Arts and Letters) who were sanctioned by the government in the late 1950s. Despite the author's contention, Văn Cao, though he had fallen from favor, remained a party member and a member of the Musicians' Association (Hội Nhạc sĩ Việt Nam) and continued to compose songs in a socialist realist vein like "Dưới ngọn cờ giải phóng" (Under liberation's flag, 1962) "Đường dây qua bản Mèo" (Powerlines Come Through the Meo (Hmong) Villages, 1968) and "Hành khúc công nhân toa xe" (March of the Rolling Stock Workers, 1984).
[21] Translator: "Hai mươi năm nội chiến từng ngày" from the song "Gia tài của mẹ" (Mother's Inheritance, 1965).
[22] Translator: "Khi đất nước tôi thanh bình, tôi sẽ đi thăm" from the song "Tôi sẽ đi thăm" (I'll go visit, ca. 1967).
[23] Translator: "Giấc mơ hồi hương" (1956) was written as a response to the collective migration of Vietnamese from the North to South Vietnam following the Geneva Accords of 1954.
[24] Văn Cao. op. cit.
[25] Nguyễn Duy, from Tôi thích làm vua. Ho Chi Minh City: Nhà xuất bản Văn Nghệ, 1987.
[26]Nguyễn Văn Thọ. Nhớ Trịnh Công Sơn. Germany. April 4, 2001.
[28] Chế Lan Viên. "Văn hóa thực dân mới chết hay chưa chết," in Ngoại Vi Thơ. Huế: Nhà xuất Thuận Hóa, 1987, p. 121.
[29] Translator: A lyric from "Đời cho ta thế" (Life gives us that).


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