Thinking about this list of “top ten Vietnamese songs of war,” I’ve had the hardest time with the songs in the middle of the list. But I knew exactly which song to begin the series and which one to end it.
For a starter, it is hard to find a better tune than Quê Hương Chiến Tranh – Country At War – if only for the title. Few titles in South Vietnamese music on war are as succinct or straightforward as this one, for it names the most significant experiences among twentieth-century Vietnamese: war and nation.
There is, however, more than the title. Before this anniversary year, I hadn’t listened to this song for at least ten years, probably more. It came back to me during the summer as I was thinking about this topic. Listening to it for the first time in a decade me think of the very end of Auden’s memorializing poem on Freud:
One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved;
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.
What on earth does a song from wartime Vietnam have anything to do with W. H. Auden and Sigmund Freud? I don’t know if I can answer this question.
This essay by Sam Alexander opens with a suggestion that Auden’s poem reflects on the similarities between psychoanalysis and the work of the poet and attempts to adapt the traditional elegy to a world in which violent and impersonal death on a massive scale had become an inescapable reality. The last part might well apply to the misfortune of the Vietnamese people who were forced to endure “violent and impersonal death on a massive scale.”
This association, however, did not cross my mind this summer. All the same, the power of art prompts us into thinking about very different things and making connections among very different sources. My best guess that the initial association has to do with “cities” and “weeping,” both of which figure in the lyrics of this song. There is also the striking image of Aphrodite in grievous sorrow. It is quite different from the image of the scheming goddess in Greek mythology, isn’t it?
Country At War was composed by Tâm Anh, likely in the late 1960s. His best-known song, far and away, is Phố Đêm or “City At Night.” But he also got into the producing side of business like some other Saigon songwriters, and churned out no fewer than a dozen of albums during the 1970s. These albums deserve closer scrutiny, as they suggest certain thematic unity about this period of South Vietnam.
Country At War is the opening tune of the eighth album, which is similarly entitled Country and War. This is the only recording of this song that I am aware of: a pity, really. But it has the fortune of being sung by the versatile Thanh Lan, who was, among other things, the most prominent interpreter of French pop music in South Vietnam.
It should be noted that Tâm Anh later wrote a counterpart to this song called, appropriately, Quê Hương Hòa Bình: Country At Peace. It was recorded for the last of his albums and performed by the great Thái Thanh. But it isn’t as good as Country At War.
Here are the original lyrics and my translation.
Gót giày đi chinh chiến miền xa,
Hằng đêm say máu xương quân tham tàn,
Chiến trường vang tiếng súng mê say,
Ai có khóc thương thây người chết?
Boots heading to distant war zones,
Soldiers driven to fight the wicked enemy.
Battle echoing sounds of mad machine guns.
Who will weep for the corpses out there?
Những người đi chinh chiến về đây,
Nhìn quê hương khóc than trong đêm dài,
Lắng hồn nghe tiếng khóc bơ vơ,
Xin xót thương người đi không về.
Soldiers returning from battle,
Watch the country weep in the endless night.
Calm their own souls and listen to the lonely cries,
Grieving for those who do not return to life.
Nhìn đường khuya quán vắng,
Xác ai phơi đầy ngoài dây kẽm gai,
Một đàn em bé thơ,
Ngơ ngác nhìn nhau
Chờ mong xót xa.
Súng rền khắp nơi,
Và tiếng người than khóc nửa đêm
Se thắt hồn đau,
Máu rơi khi chiến tranh
Tràn lan nơi kinh thành nửa đêm.
Look at the night streets and empty shops,
Corpses of strangers on top of barbed wires,
A band of innocent children
Waiting in anguish.
Guns blasting everywhere,
Anguish cries in the midst of night
Further squeeze the injured souls.
The bloodshed of war has spread
To this capital in the midst of night.
Những người mang thương tích về đây,
Nhìn quê hương chiến tranh trong điêu tàn
Những người mang tiếng khóc bơ vơ
Ru những linh hồn xanh xao buồn.
The wounded who come here
Look at the warring country in ruins,
Those who are left with forlorn cries
Comfort other frail and sad souls.
If a recording of a war song from this period could be called “matter-of-fact,” this is it. The recording achieves this quality in spite of a good number of instruments and colors in the arrangement. At one time or another, for instance, the trumpet, electric guitar, and organ step forward to the foreground. There is also the trombone in the back, plus that rarely used percussion item called the tambourine. Surprising, isn’t it? But for reasons still unclear to me, the tambourine was sparingly found in recordings of South Vietnamese music, including nhạc trẻ or “youth music” (although it was used more often in live performances).
Still, none of the instruments above is allowed to overshadow the steady bass line and percussion line. The arrangement seems to strive for as much “objectivity” as possible, or a deliberate effort to avoid the perception of being over-the-top. Even the guitar solo in the middle does not fall for the temptation towards sentimentality but is generally restrained without being subdued.
Then there is Thanh Lan’s vocals. Hers is one of the cleanest and clearest voices in South Vietnamese popular music. She virtually never gave in to easy sentimentality in her recordings, and it is no exception here where she puts out one line after another with little modulation in tone or color. “Just the facts, ma’am,” said Sgt. Joe Friday in the old American radio and television shows. In this recording, Thanh Lan sounds as if she is giving you and me only the facts. That is, the facts of warfare and destruction.
Like many war songs, this tune begins with soldiers. Unlike nhạc lính or “soldier music,” however, they are merely the starting point and not the heart of this song. The real subjects are the countless corpses: first in the countryside and, later – and to the shock of the urban Vietnamese – in cities and towns.
Barbed wire, orphans, empty shops, abandoned streets, the spread of warfare from “distant war zones” to Saigon. If a weakness in South Vietnamese music is a lack of specificity about the countryside, it is partially made up by the vividness of description found in their urban experience of warfare.
As it happens, I am in the middle of discussing the Iliad with my Great Books students. Starting with book 3, the poem tells of one after another duel, battle, aristeia – and of course a lot of killing and destruction. Even the temporary truce at the end of book 7 to collect and bury the dead barely gives a break before the resumption of warfare.
Tâm Anh’s lyrics cannot match the artistry of the Homeric epic. It is, after all, merely one song and not a song cycle. But it shows a glimpse at “violent and impersonal death on a massive scale” noted by Sam Alexander above. It is similar to Homer in “massive scale.” Yet, it is different in the other respect. The enumeration of the names of the dead in those brutal scenes of fighting in the Iliad, is a world away from the nameless deaths of so many Vietnamese. For this reason, this song deserves to be better known by younger Vietnamese and the world today.