Son, Trinh Cong
Trinh Cong Son
In the words of Time International writer Barry Hillenbrand, the Vietnamese singer and songwriter Trinh Cong Son (1939-2001) “provided the audio track” for the Vietnam War.
“Hauntingly sentimental and filled with the sadness of separation and death,” Son's songs “always seemed to be drifting from some battered tape player in a cafe or at an army checkpoint on the road to nowhere,” wrote Hillenbrand. Son and his music offer an example of the mistrust that may exist between musicians and the governments under which they live and work. He was feared and threatened by both sides during Vietnam's civil war because of his message of peace and reconciliation, and after the war he spent four years as a political prisoner. His music endured, however, and today it remains well known within and even beyond the sphere of speakers of the Vietnamese language.
Parents Were Poets
Trinh Cong Son was born on February 28, 1939, in Dac Lac province, in Vietnam's central highlands, but he grew up in Vietnam's former capital of Hue. He was the oldest of seven children. Both his parents wrote poetry. Son's father made ends meet by working as a bicycle and motorcycle dealer, but he was heavily involved in Vietnamese resistance against French colonial rule and was a member of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh guerrilla army. He was imprisoned for four years during Son's childhood, and after his release the family moved to what was then the city of Saigon.
Son went to school to become a teacher, and he apparently worked in that profession in Hue for several years in the mid-1950s. But he was also driven toward songwriting, and in 1957 he scored his first hit, “Uot Mi” (Wet Eyelashes). After that he gave up teaching to concentrate on songwriting full-time. The song, which told of a young woman mourning the death of her mother, had a melancholy tone that would become characteristic of Son's music in general. Son scored repeated successes in Vietnam over the next several years, with his songs often becoming hits in versions by female vocalist Khanh Ly. “Much of his appeal,” wrote his sister Trinh Vinh Trinh in a profile on the Trinh Cong Son Official Web site, “comes from his ability to capture the heartbeat of Vietnam.”
With the withdrawal of French colonial forces in 1954, Vietnam had been partitioned into two countries: the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (known as North Vietnam) and the Western-oriented Republic of Vietnam (known as South Vietnam). An insurgency by South Vietnamese guerrillas supporting reunification of the country under Communist rule began in the late 1950s and escalated in the early 1960s, with the United States providing logistical and then on-the-ground support to the South Vietnamese government. Son, who never married or had children, was conscripted into the South Vietnamese army in 1965 but became a draft evader, hiding out in the houses of friends in several cities and on university campuses. Occasionally he came out of hiding for campus performances, eluding arrest with the help of sympathetic students despite constant surveillance and harassment from government secret police.
He continued to write songs, with the sad themes of his lyrics now amplified by the carnage and destruction he witnessed all around him, and his songwriting took on a strong antiwar orientation. Recordings of Son's music were made and smuggled out of his hiding places. His string of hits continued, and his songs also circulated in underground bootleg copies in North Vietnam. One of his biggest hits, a song still known to most Vietnamese, was “Lullaby (Ngu Di Con),” which depicted a mother mourning a son killed in the war. “Rock gently my child, I have done it twice,” ran the lyrics, as quoted by Seth Mydans in the New York Times. “This body, which used to be so small, that I carried in my womb, that I held in my arms. Why do you rest at the age of 20 years?” A recording of the song notched sales of two million copies in Japan in 1969 and is even said to have earned the fugitive songwriter a gold record award.
Recordings Banned in South Vietnam
The South Vietnamese government banned Son's music, fearing that “Lullaby” and other antiwar pieces would depress support for the war effort. The move did little to dampen Son's popularity, however, as his songs continued to circulate widely in unofficial releases. Khanh Ly continued to record his songs, and copies of her recordings were known in many countries beyond Vietnam. American folk singer Joan Baez even referred to Son as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, drawing a comparison with the leading U.S. folk singer-songwriter of the time.
After the war ended with South Vietnam's collapse in 1975, Son took an opportunity to perform on Vietnamese radio, singing a song that promoted the idea of reconciliation between North and South. The decision backfired as Son encountered condemnation, both from anti-Communist holdouts who regarded him as a traitor and from the victorious Communist government, which had no interest in promoting reconciliation with its defeated enemy. Many South Vietnamese who had the resources to do so, including Khanh Ly and all of Son's siblings, fled to the United States or Canada, but Son decided to remain in Vietnam. He and his mother were the only members of his family remaining in the country. While on a visit to Hue to see some friends, he was detained and placed under arrest.
Son underwent four years of re-education in the Communist mold. He was sent to work for a peasant family in mountains near Vietnam's border with Laos, dodging unexploded land mines as he tilled rice and cassava fields. After his released in 1979, Son returned to Saigon, which had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. After this ordeal, he wrote little music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But he gradually regained his popularity, thanks partly to the popularity of a new female interpreter of his songs, Hong Nhung. Several printed collections of his songs were issued by publishing organs of the Vietnamese government, which would claim after his death, according to a Vietnam News Agency obituary appearing on the Web site of the Danish-Vietnamese Association, that Son “was one of those composers that mingled naturally with the new life in the country after the liberation of southern Viet Nam in 1975.” Government surveillance of Son was relaxed, although he told Agence France Presse that “they always seem to know what you are doing.”
Took Up Painting
Son resumed his songwriting career in later life, although he told Hillenbrand, “Now that the pain and sadness of war are gone, young people do not really understand me.” He composed some 600 songs in all. “I continue to write songs,” he was quoted as saying by Mydans, “but they concern love, the human condition, nature. My songs have changed. They are more metaphysical now, because I am not young.” Son also began painting in his later years and could often be seen nursing a bottle of scotch in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe. He gave up a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit as his health worsened, but continued to drink whiskey.
Son died in Ho Chi Minh City after a long struggle with diabetes on April 1, 2001. He was buried, not in Ho Chi Minh City's Martyrs' Cemetery, where governmentaffiliated composers and singers would normally have been interred, but at the rural Go Dura cemetery in Binh Duong province. Government publications initially ignored his death, but it was reported in mass-circulation newspapers, and hundreds of thousands of mourners attended his funeral or followed a procession in which Son's body was carried in a Dodge van left in the country after the departure of U.S. troops. The ceremony was marked by spontaneous outpourings of music and emotion from Vietnamese who were not even born when Son had composed his most famous songs, and his funeral procession is said to have been the second-largest in Vietnamese history, after that of Ho Chi Minh. A memorial to Son was erected in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Quoi Park, and his songs, especially those written before 1975, remain popular among Vietnamese speakers all over the world. Many have been translated into English, French, German, Japanese, and other languages.
New York Times, April 5, 2001.
Seattle Times, April 3, 2001.
Time International, April 16, 2001.
“About Trinh Cong Son,” http://www.myspace.com/trinhcongsonmusic (February 5, 2008).
“Komponisten Trinh Cong Son d⊘d,” Danish-Vietnamese Association, http://www.davifo.dk/Bio_Trinh_cong_son.htm (February 5, 2008).
“Profile,” Trinh Cong Son Official Website, http://www.trinh-cong-son.com/wpma_tcs.html (February 5, 2008).
“Vietnam Mourns Its ‘Dylan,’ ” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/1260527.stm (February 5, 2008).