When the nightlife was gradually fading and the night turned on a bluish color, you walked out of the night club in the Eden building. The cigarette smoke followed you and stayed with you. But, what stayed with you much longer was the music. It was in your ears; it was in your brain; it was in your heart and soul. You continued humming the tunes singing the words. You felt the undescribable beauty. You felt alive. After all what mattered more than beauty? You walked aimlessly for a while before hailing a cyclo. It was warm but it didn’t bother you. You sweated but that did not bother you. You were not even aware of it. It was Saigon, nightlife in Saigon, or more fashionable Saigon by Night. An aimless life but you passionately embraced it. You did not want to let it go, or change direction. You tried to live. You tried to take in as much as you could. If you could afford to go out every night you would. Because you tried to forget. Because you knew what was waiting for you one day, perhaps, at daybreak when you got out of this makeshift of an escape.
One of the songs most successfully captured that era was “Bao Giờ Biết Tương Tư”, even though it was written almost at the end of the war:
“Ngày nào cho tôi biết, Biết yêu em rồi tôi biết tương tư. Ngày nào biết mong chờ,
Biết rộn rã buồn vui đợi em dưới mưa…”
The verse gently, quietly carried you along, touching your deep yearning for beauty, fulfillment, beauty of true love and fulfillment of biblical origin. Then, the refrain soared:
“Tình yêu đã trở lại, Đôi mắt đêm ngày vơi hết đọa đầy. Tà áo em phơi bày, Ngón tay em dài, tiếng yêu không lời.”
It was you, it was your hope, it was your raison d’etre, your reason to live, the essence of your life. The tune of the song did not evaporate with the approaching dawn. It stuck in the air and was flying around the City.
Some thing wonderful just happened to me last week here in Corona. I heard the song on my car radio. An acute nostalgia suddenly overpowered my Americanized self and, for a moment, took me 10,000 miles across the ocean to the other side, to a hot and humid city, a city so endearing. All the old feelings of different moods, melancholic, sad, happy, lively rushed in and for a long moment I felt as if I had never left.
But, beware of nostalgia. It will surely betray you and your memories. But don’t put the blame all on nostalgia. Memories are tricky too. By genetic design or not, memory seems to filter all the ugly and wicked. What is left is mellow, sweet and gentle. But when reality sets in, our high school friends are not as close, or chatty, or spontaneous as they were in years past. The old oak tree is not as green or well cared as you remember. The gong, a piece of metal from the railway hung from the oak tree, is out of place and rusted.
I had heard the song many times before. It, the refrain, never failed to envelope me with the feeling of being liberated from a restricted and pre-determined life in an era with nothing to offer but destruction, destruction of lives and destruction of dreams.
For a long time, I thought it was composed by Phạm Duy. Even now, many music videos continue to list his name alone as the composer; some identify both him and the true composer of the song, Ngọc Chánh, as co-songwriters. Phạm Duy was a talented and versatile composer. I did not have a deep academic understanding of music and musical forms to discern that the piece was probably composed by a different composer than Phạm Duy, one closer to the musical style of Trường Sa: the verse builds up slowly in a minor key then smoothly and soaringly transcends into the major, lifting your spirit and doubling, tripling your enjoyment and filling you with euphoria.
There is no doubt that Ngọc Chánh was aware of Phạm Duy’s lyrics for many of Phạm Duy’s own songs. Phạm Duy never seemed to care about meaningful lyrics. From “Sức Mấy Mà Buồn” to “Ngày Trở Về”, to his lyrics for Schubert’s “Serenade”, for him, the meaning of the lyrics was secondary. The rhyme and rhythm reigned supreme.
I read somewhere, and I may be mistaken, that Ngọc Chánh asked the writer Duyên Anh first before giving the task to write the lyrics to Phạm Duy. That decision turned out to be extremely fortunate. Sometimes, you are hard pressed to know what Phạm Duy wanted to say in a song, but there is little doubt that he was a genius when it came to choosing the right words that the pronunciation of the words would compliment the music:
“Tình Yêu Đã Trở Lại…”
Every performer would be grateful for the choice of these words as they give power to his voice and make his voice sound better. In turn, the singer finds it quite effortless to let his voice soar with the spirit of the song. And it would not be difficult to imagine Phạm Duy looking down on us, asking “So, what is all the fuss about the meaning of the lyrics?”.
Together, Ngọc Chánh and Phạm Duy by this song, recorded a deep universal feeling of an era. It is a simple song, just a moment of inspiration. But, this and many other contemporaneous songs played during that period of time, under such circumstances, have stuck to the psyche of a people. The songs have preserved not just a precious unspoken feeling, but also evidence of a kind of life, a heroic kind of life of a people trying, in small ways, to stay sane, and to find happiness.
John P. Phong, Esq. June 13, 2019