This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Tet Offensive. The event has generated perhaps more publications in the English language – government reports, media accounts, academic studies, amateur histories, memoirs, etc. – than any other from the Vietnam War. A sucker for anniversaries of publications and releases of films and music, I wish to commemorate it by inviting non-Vietnamese to listen to a very well-known song among Vietnamese.
In my opinion, “Song for the Human Corpses” is a terrific teaching tool about the Vietnamese experience of war. When lecturing on this topic, indeed, I’ve always played it along with the song Du Mục (The Herd), which is about refugees who were forced by bombing and fighting to move from the countryside to cities.
Both songs were written by Trịnh Công Sơn and included in the first album of the series Sing for the Vietnamese Country. Yet they are different in at least one major aspect. “The Herd” is symbolic, even a touch romantic in portraying the nation through the lens of the Vietnamese Mother. (I am compelled to capitalize the term.)
In comparison, “Song for the Human Corpses” is much less symbolic, if at all. It is uncompromisingly clear-eyed about the devastation of warfare by showing us corpses after corpses. There is certainly an abstraction of nationalism in the refrain. But starting with the song’s title, the lyrics are dominated by a painterly depiction of death amidst the predominantly urban landscape. There is no Vietnamese Mother here, only dead mothers: the “elderly corpses” in the fourth verse. Even the representation of the nation in the refrain – the “fields” – is a lot more concrete and recognizable than the essentialist trope of motherhood.
The original studio recording also includes a brilliant arrangement, and I found it difficult to think of this song apart from the arrangement. It begins with the dignified sound of the trumpet sliding over the 2/2 beat and unadorned backing sounds of a snare drum and a palm-muted electric guitar. The sound of a clarinet emerges while Khánh Ly sings the first verse.
Xác người nằm trôi sông, Human corpses float on the river,
Phơi trên ruộng đồng, They dry up in rice fields,
Trên nóc nhà thành phố, On city house roofs,
Trên những đường quanh co. On the winding streets.
The trumpet returns to fill in between the verses. Only one part of the first verse references the urban landscape, for TCS is careful enough to note devastation in the countryside (rice fields). Most of warfare during the 1960s and 1970s, after all, occurred in rural areas. But the second verse is entirely about the cityscape.
Xác người nằm bơ vơ Corpses lie unattended,
Dưới mái hiên chùa, Under pagoda roofs,
Trong giáo đường thành phố, Inside city churches,
Trên thềm nhà hoang vu. On abandoned house porches.
In the context of death, the destruction of pagodas and churches may be more horrifying than the abandonment of houses. Pagodas and churches are sites of funeral rituals and formal mourning. Accustomed to these rituals, Vietnamese would have found the destruction of their worship sites utterly depressing.
The refrain shifts gear from the specificities of landscape to the generalities that are the nation. It endows and sacralizes these many violent deaths. It offers a hope, faint that it may be, that the deaths contribute to the future growth of the Vietnamese nation.
Mùa xuân ơi, xác nuôi thơm cho đất ruộng cầy,
Việt Nam ơi, xác thêm hơi cho đất ngày mai,
Ðường đi tới, dù chông gai,
Vì quanh đây đã có người.
Oh spring, corpses fertilize your plowed fields,
Oh Vietnam, corpses vaporize your land for tomorrow.
There are spikes and thorns on the road ahead,
But these corpses will protect it.
The last verses move back to specificities, but the emphasis isn’t on landscape as it is on people: their age groups, their relationships to the living.
Xác người nằm quanh đây Human corpses are lying all around,
Trong mưa lạnh này In this cold and rain,
Bên xác người già yếu Next to the elderly corpses
Có xác còn thơ ngây Are corpses of the innocent.
Xác nào là em tôi Which corpse in this ditch
Dưới hố hầm này. Is my [young] sister?
Trong những vùng lửa cháy. In the war zones?
Bên những vồng ngô khoai. On the vegetable fields?
The instrumental section hears solos from the organ, the clarinet, and trumpet: all appropriate for funerals. Then it’s the opening phrases again and a repetition of the lyrics.
Many of the corpses did not receive a proper burial. This song – the lyrics, the instrumentation, etc. – might have been the closest to a funeral for them. Think of them and countless other war victims when listening to this recording half a century later.