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Vietnam’s Bob Dylan faced four years of “re-education”

Seth Mydans - The New York Times - April 12, 2001.


Trinh Cong Son, who has died aged 62, was an anti-war singer and songwriter whose melancholy music stirred Vietnamese on both sides of the war. His family said he had diabetes. Residents said thousands of mourners thronged his home, piling bouquets around it. With his focus on human emotions and his refusal to conform to official dogma, Mr. Son suffered pressure from both the government of South Vietnam, where he lived during the war, and the victorious Communists, who sentenced him to four years of farm labour and political education when the war ended.

But his popularity won out and his music endured; in the last years of his life he was tolerated and even embraced by the government. His songs are widely performed in Vietnam and among Vietnamese overseas. "Crying for Trinh Cong Son," read the headline over a full-page tribute in the daily youth newspaper Thanh Nien. "Truth, innocence and beauty in Son's songs surpassed all hostility," the newspaper said. In his last years, he took up painting as well as songwriting and was a fixture, with his friends and his bottle of Scotch, at a café in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. "Now, really, I have nothing to protest," said Mr. Son in an interview last April on the 25th anniversary of the end of the war. "I continue to write songs, but they concern love, the human condition, nature. My songs have changed. They are more metaphysical now, because I am not young."

Mr. Son's popularity peaked during the war years in the 1960s and 1970s when his songs propelled the careers of some of the best-known South Vietnamese singers. He became known internationally as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, singing of the sorrow of war and the longing for peace in a divided country. Almost everybody knew the words to songs such as Ngu Di Con (Lullaby), about the pain of a mother mourning her soldier son: "Rest well my child, my child of the yellow race. Rock gently my child, I have done it twice. This body, which used to be so small, that I carried in my womb, that I held in my arms. Why do you rest at the age of 20 years?" Because of what it called "defeatist" sentiments like these, the South Vietnamese government tried to suppress Mr. Son's music -- which flourished underground and was also listened to clandestinely in the North.

When the war ended in 1975, Mr. Son refused to flee as many other southern Vietnamese did, including most members of his family. Along with tens of thousands of other southern Vietnamese who remained, he was sentenced to a period of "re-education." The eldest of seven children and a teacher by training, Mr. Son never married. His siblings fled to Canada and the United States after the war, and since the death of his mother a few years ago, he was the only one of his family in Vietnam. He died on April 1 and was buried April 4 at a Buddhist temple near Ho Chi Minh City.


Seth Mydans - The New York Times - April 12, 2001.

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