Of the eight or nine composers in this compilation of mine – I’m still debating between two songs by two different authors – Vĩnh Điện is by far the least known. An officer in the South Vietnamese military, he was, I believe, many years younger than the other songwriters on my list. [Correction: He was in fact older than Trần Thiện Thanh – see comment below from Jason Gibbs.] His output in the Republican South was modest, as fewer than ten songs were recorded before 1975. My favorite is Vết Thương Sỏi Đá, “The Heavy Wound,” which has to do with the pain of romantic love than suffering from warfare. Check it out, below or from the website that bears its author’s name.
Imprisoned in reeducation camps for many years after the war, Vĩnh Điện came to the U.S. late in life and, out of his searing experience of prison, brought out a lot of new music. Some of these songs were composed in captivity: as the case with poets and songwriters in the same situation, he kept them in his head. Other songs were written in America. They have been recorded in a dozen of CDs, and you can read about them in this write-up of more than 150 pages!
Though few, Vĩnh Điện’s songs before 1975 were recorded by several highly regarded singers: Thái Thanh, Thanh Thúy, Lệ Thu, and especially Elvis Phương. The song under discussion, Đó! Quê Hương Tôi! – literally There! My Country! – was sung by Elvis Phương in his great solo album Shotguns 26.
The Shotguns series – “Shotguns” is the original name, not my English translation – was produced by the musician Ngọc Chánh, a native-born Saigonese who became one of the top entrepreneurs of the music scene in Saigon. He ran one of the most well-known lounges in the city, and also formed a band that featured Elvis Phương as one of the two vocalists. Taking advantage of the American military presence, he named the band Shotguns and booked its performances at U.S. bases.
Ngọc Chánh later turned to the recording business; in 1969 he churned out the first of thirty-four albums in the Shotguns series. This first album wasn’t a commercial success, but he kept plugging at the budding business and brought out another. Perhaps he (superstitiously?) wanted to be “far away” from the failed first album, he didn’t call it Shotguns 2 but Shotguns 4. This album sold better, and he went on to produce thirty-two more, including this solo album of Elvis Phương.
It is a very well-done album: thematically coherent in mood and content, musically interesting in arrangements, and consistently strong in vocals. The seventeen songs include several of the vocalist’s signature ones, including the best Vietnamese version of Francis Lai’s “Love Story.” The songs come from no fewer than sixteen people, including Lai and the producer himself. It is the sort of albums that I’d love to write a long dissection if there is time in the future.
Đó! Quê Hương Tôi! is the fourth song on Side A, and it moves from personal sorrow of love (including death) to national sorrow of war. Following the structure ABABC, the A verses describe some of on-going effects of war on individuals and local communities (such as hamlets) while the B verses note the outcome on the are descriptive of the effects of warfare while the B verses offer lamentation.
The last verse shifts once again to a prayer for the entire Vietnamese nation. If my #8 song, Đưa Em Về Quê Hương, ends with hope in the sense that the speaker dreams of peace, this song ends with hope in the sense that the speaker prays to God for peace.
Below are two videos currently on YouTube: same recording but the first video also shows the lyrics.
Một người ôm con thơ theo xe tang nức nở
Lê đôi chân nghe đá vỡ đường mòn
Một người tay ôm bom len trong đêm không tiếng thở
Chợt đâu đây nghe tiếng nổ, từng đoàn xe
Từng người qua. Còn gì nữa?
Someone holds her child and tearfully follows the funeral hearse.
Dragging her feet over the broken-up road.
Someone holds a bomb and sneaks into the night without a breath.
Suddenly there is a blast. Each caravan of trucks,
Each person walking through. What is left of them?
Đó! Quê hương tôi.
Nay còn đâu nụ cười?
Nay còn đâu tình người?
Còn nghĩa trang, còn hố sâu.
Còn đêm hỏa châu soi sáng
Còn đâu âm vang tiếng súng.
Còn đêm, chỉ còn đêm. Không còn ngày!
There! My country!
Where are smiles?
Where is humanity?
There are cemeteries,
There are trenches,
And nights lit up by flares.
There are echoes of gunshots.
There are nights, only nights, and not days!
Một người đem Poncho thay băng ca khiêng đứa trẻ
Đôi chân đen bên đống lửa đầu làng
Một người chui trong hang, khi đêm rơi len lén trở về đồng bằng
Đem chất nổ và dầu loang
Để rồi khuya làng bùng cháy.
Someone uses a poncho to carry a child
Whose dark feet lie next to a fire in the hamlet.
Someone climbs into a cave, and sneaks back to the plain at night,
Bringing explosives and oil,
Blowing the hamlet at night.
Đó! Quê hương tôi.
Chung một cha mà tuyệt tình
Chung màu da mà hận thù.
Tìm giết nhau thật đớn đau
Ngày nao quê hương gấm vóc.
Ngày nay quê hương tang tóc
Vì tôi. Hay vì anh. Hay vì người?
There! My country!
Sharing the same father but no love,
Sharing the same skin but also hatred.
Killing one another, oh so painful!
Once this country was grand.
Now this country is woeful.
Is it because of me? Or you? Or another?
Cầu cho nước Việt tôi.
Một ngày không có đạn bay
Một ngày không có lửa cháy.
Nơi nơi âm vang nụ cười,
Say trong tình người.
An vui một đời, thôi hết ngăn đôi.
Xin Thượng đế hãy ban cho nụ cười.
Ban cho tình người, ban cho một đời.
Chiến tranh xa rời.
Pray for my Vietnamese country.
One day there are no flying bullets,
One day there are no burning fires,
But smiles and laughter everywhere.
People share in human love,
In joy and peace, no more division.
May the Almighty grant us a smile,
Grant us human love, grant us a life,
Make war go far away.
Vĩnh Điền’s song about war is only one example of South Vietnamese music that invokes prayer. I will return to the theme of prayer when discussing another song in this series. My next song, however, is about the crossing of war and romantic love.