Pham Duy is doubtless the most famous--and prolific--living writer of popular Vietnamese songs. Yet when he goes out in Little Saigon and elsewhere, he is never mobbed and rarely is even approached.
“The Vietnamese never express themselves that way,” he says. “They don’t ask for autographs. They just look silently. . . . They’re very shy, I think, my people.”
Such reticence hardly is a reflection of his popularity. Five decades into his musical career, many of the thousands of songs he has written still are being performed, even by the youngest crop of Vietnamese American singers.
Born in Hanoi, he started as a band singer but before long he had become what he calls a “revolutionary,” writing songs that attacked the French colonial rule of Vietnam. He left after the country was divided in 1954; he later wrote an ambitious song cycle about a voyager who wanders Vietnam, North and South, a work that serves both to explore Vietnam’s ethnic identity and to decry its division.
There were other phases of his long career. He traveled from village to village, collecting folk songs and helping to preserve and popularize them. He wrote Buddhist hymns, children’s songs, popular songs. He studied music in France in the mid-'50s, and during the Vietnam War he traveled several times with his guitar to the United States on concert tours sponsored by the U.S. government.
In many ways, he has been a bridge between traditional Vietnamese music and current pop. “We searched for a new (musical) language,” he says, “which is not entirely Western.” Now 74, with an impressive crop of silver hair, he says he considered retiring from music but continues to write and record occasionally.
“I don’t want to push myself. I am very free to enjoy my life,” he says. His days are “sometimes very lazy, sometimes very busy.”
His music has taken yet another course recently, with works that are primarily symphonic. Also, in the past “everything I sang was about Vietnam, about the fate of Vietnamese people, about war, about peace.” Now, “the work is more spiritual,” reflecting his Zen Buddhist beliefs.
He also writes books and is completing the fourth volume of his autobiography (the first three already have been published in Vietnamese). Ready for the presses is his first work in English, which tells the story of Vietnam in the last 50 years through the lyrics of his songs. The collection is meant primarily for second-generation Vietnamese whom, he fears, have lost touch with their culture.
“I want the second generation to know about what happened to Vietnam,” he says. “I think they should know about Vietnam.”
His work does span a remarkable and tragic slice of history. “I am a son of this century,” he says.
In his scrapbooks, yellowing clips from U.S. newspapers describe his ‘60s concerts and TV appearances, painting him as a troubadour in the Bob Dylan mold. After his emigration to the United States in 1975, he wrote songs that addressed the situation of refugees around the world, and nostalgia-tinged ballads about the Vietnam that was.
Although he enjoys his new home, a quiet neighborhood in a pocket of unincorporated Orange County land, he still misses his old one.
He says his legacy is a simple one, despite his ever-changing career. “Life is struggle, life is love. Pham Duy music is like a stream of love, becoming a river of love. . . . I am proud that all my life I sing about love.”