Comparisons of music in different languages and styles could be a hazardous affair. Even at its best, a comparison could be pretty inexact because one could locate as many divergences and differences as parallels and similarities, if not more. And the differences may be too strong to render similarities ineffectual. With this caveat, I nonetheless wish to give this comparison a try.
A few months ago, I suggested that the Vietnamese equivalent to Where Do I Begin?, the theme song of the movie Love Story, is a ballad by Trần Thiện Thanh about a young couple in wartime. The song was based on a true story, albeit the deceased at the end is the man rather than the woman as in the novel and movie. There was also temporal proximity, as the Vietnamese song was written and produced two or three years after the release of the sentimental American movie. In other words, both songs came out of the early Seventies.
Let me try something else: what could be the Vietnamese equivalent to the most recorded song in history, which has had over 2500 covers and counting?
Ok, that last fact sounds intimidating. Maybe it is better to ask: What is a reasonable Vietnamese equivalent to the Beatles classic?
My nomination is Tôi Đưa Em Sang Sông. Its literal meaning, I Take You Across the River, doesn’t really make sense in English. Therefore, I’ll take after some folks from the Internet and call it Farewell My Love instead.
This song was composed and recorded in the Sixties just like “Yesterday.” Paul McCartney began writing it in 1964, finished in May 1965, and the Beatles recorded and released it soon after. From what I’ve gathered, the Vietnamese song was initially penned in 1960 by a young Nhật Ngân. He sent it to the established musician Y Vân, who revised it slightly but inexplicably put down the name of his younger brother Y Vũ as co-author. There has been some dispute about authorship, but let it pass for now. If reading Vietnamese, though, you should check out some memories of Y Vân and Y Vũ by their friend Trịnh Hưng.
But back on the Sixties, I haven’t been able to track down the initial recording – some attributed it to Lệ Thu – but it’s likely that recordings began to come out in the mid-1960s.
More important than timing is mood. I think this song is comparable to “Yesterday” because it is characterized by sadness rather than grief, by melancholy rather than tragedy, and by deep regret on part of the narrator rather than devastation.
Farewell My Love is more specific than “Yesterday” in content: a young man lamenting the wedding of a woman whom he has loved since knowing her back then. “Yesterday” is more vague – John Lennon, to whom McCartney credited the title, once criticized the lyrics for a lack of content. The lyrics didn’t “resolve into any sense,” Lennon said in an interview not long before his death, “They’re good – but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything; you don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it were yesterday – that much you get – but it doesn’t really resolve. (He ended with a backhanded compliment: “Well done. Beautiful. And I never wished I’d written it.”) But it is precisely the relative vagueness that makes the song universally liked. In the case of the Vietnamese song, the lyrics are more informative but still unclear enough that it touched a universal chord among old and young Vietnamese alike.
Most importantly, the mood is quite similar in that both narrators are tinged with regret. McCartney’s speaker had “said something wrong” and now “long for yesterday” for a chance to change it. Nhật Ngân’s narrator wishes he had not crossed the river with the young woman so he “wouldn’t feel sad this afternoon.” The regrets are different but point at a similar kind of loss that alters one’s perception of the past.
Following the familiar AABA structure, the song opens with the past. Unstated are the stations in life of the speaker and the woman. But they must have been young at the start, and might have been students at the same school. For unclear reasons – they went home after school, perhaps? – they took the same ferry boat across the river and he got to see and know her better.
Tôi đưa em sang sông
Chiều xưa mưa rơi âm thầm
Để thấm ướt chiếc áo xanh
Và đẫm ướt mái tóc em.
Nếu xưa trời không mưa,
Đường vắng đâu cần tôi đưa,
Chẳng lẽ chung một lối về,
Mà nỡ quay mặt bước đi.
I take you across the river
While rain falls quietly in the evening,
Absorbing your green shirt
And soaking your long hair.
Had it not rained then,
I would not have taken you,
But we were going the same way,
I could not turn away from you.
The first half of the second verse describes his growing affection, which is enhanced by growing fear of “losing” her. Starting with nếu or if, second half shifts from love towards loss and prepares us for the eventual loss of his beloved.
Tôi đưa em sang sông
Bàn tay nâng niu ân cần
Sợ bến đất lấm gót chân,
Sợ bến gió buốt trái tim.
Nếu tôi đừng đưa em
Thì chắc đôi mình không quen
Đừng bước chung một lối mòn,
Có đâu chiều nay tôi buồn.
I take you across the river,
Your hand I take gently, carefully,
Fearing dirt touch your heels,
Fearing wind freeze the heart.
Had I not taken you,
We wouldn’t have known each other,
We wouldn’t have walked the same path,
I wouldn’t feel so sad this afternoon.
The refrain is short but not sweet. It isn’t exactly sorrowful either, at least not yet. But it makes clear of the divergent paths – walking and roads are large symbols in this song – that will lead to the seeming inevitable.
Rồi thời gian lặng lẽ trôi,
Đời tôi là chiến binh
Đi khắp phương trời
Mà đời em là ước mơ,
Đẹp muôn ngàn ý thơ,
Như ngóng trông chờ
Then time passed quietly,
My life is that of a soldier
Traveling all over the country.
But yours is a dream,
Exquisite like thousands of poetic lines,
Drawing the love of young men
The last verse brings us to her wedding and notes “heels,” albeit in the context of firecrackers at her house (which was a common practice of Vietnamese weddings, especially at the bride’s house) rather than dirt and mud at the boat landing. The last phrase, trong gió mưa, literally means “in wind and rain” but also implies instability, hardship, even misery. The song begins with the narrator with “I,” and it ends with him albeit somewhat figuratively.
Hôm nao em sang ngang
Bằng xe hoa thay con thuyền?
Giờ phút cuối đến tiễn em,
Nhìn xác pháo vướng gót chân
Gót chân ngày xa xưa
Sợ lấm trong bùn khi mưa.
Nàng đã thay một lối về,
Quên cả người trong gió mưa.
Today you were married.
Did you travel by boat or a wedding carriage?
Saying farewell to you in the last minute,
Watching popped firecrackers stuck to heels.
Those heels of the old days,
That fear of mud in the rain.
She has changed the path heading home,
And has forgotten the one in wind and rain.
It is quietly heartbreaking, and quite befitting of Vietnamese articulations of romantic losses at the time: that is, the losers suffer in silence. I believe this aspect is another reason for the song’s wide appeal to Vietnamese of both genders and all regions.
Indeed, the lyrics are squarely from a male perspective but the song has drawn equally female and male singers. Which is of course the case with “Yesterday.” Below are some videos of recent amateur videos and recordings from Republic Saigon.
The guitar-friendly nature of the song is apparent from the amateur versions. I think it contributes handsomely to the popularity of this song, just as the acoustic-guitar orientation has done to “Yesterday.” I don’t think it would be the same had Farewell My Love been a piano-based song. This rendition indeed begins with a long guitar introduction.
Younger people like Thy Phương above, yes, but older Vietnamese love to sing this song just as much, if not more, as seen in the next two videos.
There were a number of studio recordings in Republican Saigon, and below are five of them from, respectively, Chế Linh, Khánh Ly, Lệ Thu, Phương Dung, and Trường Hải. (I am not completely sure if Minh Hiếu’s version from this link was done before or after 1975.) If pressed to choose only one, I’ll go with the Chế Linh version:
Khánh Ly’s recording begins at 0:45 in the next video. She speaks during the instrumental middle, giving the names of song, authors, and singer and the place of recording – the Studio Mây Hồng (Pink Cloud). Which may be the best part, since this is one of few unsuccessful recordings from her years in Republican Saigon. I find it rather weepy, and that her post-1975 version is better.
Better is Lệ Thu’s recording, although I wish her voice were louder – or, conversely, the instruments softer.
Regrettably, this version from the great Phương Dung has poor recording quality. Her voice is strong, but it isn’t well recorded. I wouldn’t have posted it except for the fact that the lyrics are slightly different from most recordings. I wonder if these are the original lyrics, or if she changed them when performing live or recording.
Finally is Trường Hải’s passable version.
The song has been recorded by a lot of singers after 1975, first in the diaspora then in Vietnam. They include Elvis Phương, Mạnh Quỳnh, Nguyễn Hưng, Tuấn Vũ, and Vũ Khanh, among others, on the men’s side. Among the women are Giao Linh, Hương Lan, Ngọc Lan, Thanh Thúy, and, possibly my favorite postwar recording, Phương Hồng Quế. It isn’t on YouTube but you can listen to it here.
A search on one of the popular online sources shows some sixty non-duplicated covers, mostly with vocals but also as a guitar solo. There are a number of such solos on YouTube, including this one that was recorded on the street with the claim that the song is “the best bolero song on the street.”
On the other end of the spectrum, it is increasingly turned into a fast-track dance tune at Vietnamese clubs and in records. This recent diversification of style is the latest indicator of its lasting popularity among Vietnamese.
Non-Vietnamese typically think of Vietnam in the Sixties as a time of war. But it was also a time of many other things, including the golden age of Vietnamese popular music. Tôi Đưa Em Sang Sông is a perfect example of this golden age.
January 18, 2016 at 9:44 am
You have a couple of Southern misspellings – in the first verse it should be lẽ not lẻ, nỡ not nở. The song definitely has the melodic hallmarks of a Nhật Ngân song. He told me that Thanh Thúy was the first to record it. The Minh Hiếu version you link to is from after 1975.
I think that part of the effectiveness of the song is that its opening initially plays against the “sang ngang” image so well known from Nguyễn Bính’s poems. The whole notion of a young woman “crossing over” / “sang ngang” became, and possibly remains a popular cliché of Vietnamese popular song and poetry. A hallmark of Vietnamese song and poetry is that listeners and readers appreciate and even expect and welcome these clichés. And Nhật Ngân deploys it very effectively. In the beginning he and she cross the river together (I’d compare this part of the song to the Hollies song Bus Stop) and listeners get their hopes up, but since it’s a Vietnamese song you had better know that things aren’t going to work out well (there’s never a “by August she was mine” like the Hollies song in a Vietnamese song, or at least in any Vietnamese song that has become popular). So, of course, she will cross over with somebody else.
I would say that “mưa gió” speaks to the narrator’s situation as a soldier – it reflects whatever hardships (exposure to harsh weather, coming under attack, etc.) that a soldier would expect to face. The song itself faces some of the mưa gió of a soldier’s life. The single line “Đời tôi là chiến binh” has meant that this song is banned from being recording or public performed in Vietnam – this is 41 years after the war is over. Of course, the song remains very popular with everyday people.
How did you come to translate “Như ngóng trông chờ” as “Drawing the love of young men”? I take the meaning to be that she is the expectant one. Maybe expecting him, maybe somebody else, perhaps implying that she reached a time when she is available to the possibility of marriage – and of course are narrator, doing his duty to the country and to his people, is not present to help realize that possibility. Wasn’t it the case that there were women at that time who would prefer to marry somebody who was less likely to be in the line of fire, thus giving the soldier at the front a raw deal?
In many “sang ngang” songs and poems, there is a statement of sadness or regret from the woman and sense that the man and woman knew that there’s was a love that was meant to be and would be cherished all their lives. Here the dutiful soldier savors the experience of having gotten to know her at the same time he also savors the sadness of being separated from her forever. But she might actually be willingly and happily marrying somebody else.
January 18, 2016 at 10:32 am
Thanks on the misspellings, which have been corrected along with addition of the first page of the sheet music. I copied-and-pasted from one of many Internet sites, which got these words wrong. I should have known better to double-check them against the sheet music or, at least, the vocals in one of the old recordings.
Yes, Nguyễn Bính’s famous phrase merits a note. “Sang ngang” is a trope, really, as you suggest.
Good eye on “Như ngóng trông chờ”: I spent more time on that line than any other. Let’s just say that I took a small risk. Initially, I had it along the line of “Waiting for love”: a somewhat ambiguous position. The lyrics say rather little about the young woman herself, and it isn’t clear at all that she was waiting for him, now a soldier, to be back. Maybe, maybe not. Anyway, I listened to the Phương Dung’s recording, whose lyrics deviate the most. There, the last line of the refrain is “Bao kẻ đang chờ,” which shifts the perspective to other men than the woman. It makes me wonder that she was waiting to be courted (rather waiting for him to return). Anyway, this is a liberal translation and I may change it after some more thought.
Interesting comparison you draw to “Bus Stop.” Funny, but I think American rock ‘n’ roll contributed to a more happy-ending content in South Vietnamese music in the Seventies, in nhạc trẻ, nhạc kính động, even nhạc lính: e.g., Túp Lều Lý Tưởng.
As for this song, I have a hunch that it could be written only by someone with enough familiarity about the riverine south. Sort of analogous to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which couldn’t be written by someone without good knowledge of the Mississippi. Nhật Ngân was born in the north and wrote this song in Đà Nẵng. But he probably knew enough of boat landings and river-crossing common in southern regions. Northerners experienced rivers different than southerners – flooding, dam maintenance, etc. – than a site for budding romance.
Finally, I wonder how much alteration of the lyrics Y Vân did to the original lyrics… I’ve a suspicion that he might have heightened the soldier angle to “fit” better the mood at the time. But there’s no way of knowing as both are deceased and we don’t have their letters and relevant copies.
January 18, 2016 at 10:55 pm
The riverine element should apply in every one of the rice producing regions of Vietnam – North, Central, South.
January 19, 2016 at 6:47 am
Yes and no. Of course Vietnamese experienced rivers in all region, and there’s also plenty of flooding in the center due to typhoons. But my reading of folk and elite literature suggests southerners romanticized rivers more, sometimes a lot more. Northerners were more guarded and “realistic” about rivers, and idealized the village more.
December 5, 2016 at 5:07 am
good writting! thanks! ❤