The second spot of this ten-song list is the toughest for me to decide. I knew that it is reserved for a song by Phạm Duy, Vietnam’s greatest twentieth-century composer. But it was hard to decide between two very different songs: a virtual toss-up. One of my “rules” for making this list is that there could be no more than two songs from the same composer – and Phạm Duy had appeared once already at #8. Which one should fill up this spot: 1954-1975 (the abbreviated title of the song), or Hát Trên Đường Tạm Dung – Singing on the Exilic Road?
In the end, I went with 1954-1975. But it could be the other song easily. Although coming from the same album, they are, again, quite different. Singing on the Exilic Road is about the U.S.; 1954-1975 is about Vietnam. Yet, they share one characteristic aside from the fact that they are both refugee songs: their scope is quite large.
For Phạm Duy possessed an acute historical sensibility about the experiences of the Vietnamese. Firmly rooted in an anticolonial, nationalistic, and noncommunist stand, he was more than a nationalist: an artist who could see the minutia of war and dislocation on the one hand and, on the other, the big picture out of these experiences. Lê Thương in his early career might have matched Phạm Duy in articulating the national experience on a grand scale. I’m not sure if any other twentieth-century Vietnamese composer of popular music could have injected a sense of the epical into the small frame of a song under five or six minutes.
When arriving to the U.S. in 1975, Phạm Duy shared the same experience as other Vietnamese refugees: family separation. Twentieth-century Vietnamese experience of separation was frequent and profound, mainly because the causes of separation were many and consequential. Some were separated by educational opportunities: one of the “better” reasons for separation. Some were separated by labor migration to other countries (something that goes on a lot today, albeit under different causes and conditions). Some were separated by incarceration. Then, of course, millions were separated by war, national division, and, in this case, the fall of the Republic of Vietnam.
Family separation is common to virtually all refugees anywhere. For the reasons above, however, separation seemed to be deeper than most for Vietnamese during the Cold War. (The Korean case might be worse due to national division to this day.) Better than most songwriters, Phạm Duy grasped the historical scale of separation that, ironically, was caused by national unification in 1975. His music on refugee life reflects this scale, arguably best of all in this very song.
Ironically, Phạm Duy’s situation was the reverse of the content in the lyrics. In the song, the father is stuck in Vietnam while the son made it out. In real life, however, he made it to the U.S. right after the Fall of Saigon while his oldest sons couldn’t get out until several years later. No matter: a capable artist should be able to transcend reality while, paradoxically, be rooted firmly in it. When it comes to articulating the experience of familial separation, Phạm Duy proved more than capable. For he places the experience in the larger national context.
(A parallel is the Hòn Vọng Phu trilogy by Lê Thương in the 1940s, in which a marital story is placed in a precolonial and national setting.)
The first recording of the song came from Elvis Phương: the same album that features #6 song on my list. Literally, the title doesn’t specify that it is a son, only the child of the father. I opt for “son” because it sounds a lot better, but it is fine to translate “con” as “child” as well.
The first two verses are about the migrating experience after the Geneva Peace Accords. Among other things, the composer draws a sharp contrast between clouds and rain in the north and sunshine in the south. It is quite ideological, and it reflects rather well the attitudes against the victorious regime among Vietnamese refugees at the time.
Một ngày năm bốn cha bỏ quê xa
Chốn đã chôn nhau cắt rốn bao nhiêu đời
Một ngày năm bốn cha bỏ phương trời
Một miền Bắc tối tăm mưa phùn rơi.
Một ngày năm bốn cha bỏ Sơn Tây
Dắt díu con thơ vô sống nơi Biên Hòa
Dù là xa đó vẫn là quê nhà
Và miền nắng soi vui gia đình ta.
One day in 1954, father left his hometown,
Where ancestors were born and buried for generations.
One day in 1954, father left the region
In the north of clouds and drizzling rain.
One day in 1954, father left the town of Sơn Tây,
Taking his young children to start anew in Biên Hòa.
Although far from home, it was still his country,
Our family was happy under the warm heat of the south.
The third verse is clever because Phạm Duy ups the notes and pushes Elvis Phương to raise the voice and match them. The musical shift reinforces the notion 1954 was momentous but 1975 was greater, deeper, and more grievous in scope.
Một ngày bảy lăm con bỏ nước ra đi
Hai mươi năm là hai lần ta biệt xứ
Giờ cha lưu đày ở ngay trên đất ta
Và giờ con lưu đày ở đây trên xứ lạ.
One day in 1975, son left the country,
Twenty years means we twice left our homes.
Now, father is in exile in his own country,
While son is in exile in this strange land.
The son is in exile because he is in America. Yet the father feels exilic even though he is still in Vietnam. For his South Vietnamese nation, the Republic of Vietnam, was irretrievably lost. This notion is a lovely touch about the nationalist attachment of refugees to the two decades of noncommunist postcolonialism.
Một ngày năm bốn cha lùi quê hương
Lánh Bắc vô Nam cha muốn xa bạo cường.
Một ngày bảy lăm đứng ở cuối đường
Loài quỷ dữ xua con ra đại dương!
One day in 1954, father left his home,
Leaving north for south, he wished to get away from cruelty.
One day in 1975, son stood at the end of the road,
Pushed out to the ocean by the wicked devils.
Enters the instrumental break, then the song continues with new lyrics. The absence of repetition contributes to the “epic” scope about the song. Nonetheless, it does repeat the format that the first two verses are about 1954 and the third 1975.
Một ngày năm bốn xa mộ ông cha,
Với lũy tre xanh khóm chuối bên sau nhà.
Một ngày năm bốn cha phải chia lìa
Cùng mảnh đất nóc gia cha làm ra.
Một ngày năm bốn ôi Thành Đô ơi!
Tiễn bước cha đi vẫn giữ tên muôn đời,
Hà Nội yêu quý không thể ngăn người
Vì người đã ra đi theo tự do.
One day in 1954, father left his ancestral graves,
Bamboo wall and banana trees in the backyard.
One day in 1954, father was separated
From the farm and the house roofs he built.
One day in 1954, alas, Capitol City,
Which bid farewell to father while holding to its eternal name.
Beloved Hanoi could not stop the people
Who left because they followed liberty.
Of the latter verse, note that Hanoi is referenced in the first line and named in the third. Here, Phạm Duy plays loose with history in declaring that it has an “eternal name,” for Hanoi actually had several different names in its long history. Vietnamese refugees probably overlooked this mistake because they agreed with his main point shown in the next verse: the change of Saigon’s name forced upon by the victorious regime.
Một ngày bảy lăm con bỏ hết giang sơn
Hai mươi năm tình yêu người yêu cuộc sống!
Giờ nơi nước mình niềm đau thay nỗi vui
Sài Gòn đã chết rồi phải mang tên xác người.
One day in 1975, son has abandoned his country,
Twenty years of love and loving life!
Now our country has replaced happiness with pain,
Saigon has died, being named after a corpse.
The last verse bring the two experiences into one, multiplying the sorrow but also bringing an overarching interpretation to them.
Một ngày dĩ vãng ôi gần hay xa!
Đất nước hai phen chứng kiến bao chia lìa
Đời của cha con: hai lần vẫy chào
Chào từ giã quê hương trong hận đau.
A day of the past: is it near or far?
Twice has our country witnessed separation.
Twice have father and son waved goodbye.
Waving goodbye to homeland deep in hatred and sorrow.
The song ends with a two-line coda, which summaries the song in one line and expresses a distant hope in the second.
Đời hai lần ta bỏ quê bỏ nước
Phải nuôi ngày sau về ôm tổ quốc.
Twice in our lives, we have left home and country.
Build our spirit so we’ll return to our fatherland.
There have been a number of other recordings, including at least two by Khánh Ly. Phạm Duy returned to Vietnam and lived out the last ten years of his long and productive life. In that, one could say that he reconciled his past and present. It is different in the diaspora, however, and this song still carries solid anticommunist contents. But I also have a feeling that it has been performed live as memorialization of the profound experience of separation, which is related to yet isn’t the same as anticommunism.
However is the case, there’s no question that it is still very much alive as a refugee song in Little Saigons throughout the diaspora. Below is a live performance at a fundraising event organized by a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in suburban Toronto. It is preceded by a short introduction by the MC Giáng Ngọc, daughter of the composer of the #7 song on my list.
A valuable work of art should outlive the artist. Having written so many great songs, especially a number of love tunes that are standards, Phạm Duy’s reputation should live into the next century. As for this song, I predict that it will last for at least two more decades, possibly more, due to the historicity of its artistry. We’ll see.