American connects with Vietnamese anti-war songs and reconnects two icons
Molly Hartman O'Connell performs Vietnam's red songs in Con duong am nhac (Musical road) program on Ho Chi Minh City Television
"Mother of Vietnam, do you know your children have begun the fight?"
This was the only part of the song, the chorus, that Molly Hartman O'Connell understood, because, as she recalls, her Vietnamese was "fumbling" at best when she heard it for the first time.
But the first Vietnam War song that the Brooklyn (New York) native and former anthropology student from Columbia University heard, Tieng hat nhung dem khong ngu (Songs for sleepless nights), composed by well-known musician Pham Tuyen in 1970, left a lasting impression.
It sparked in her a desire know who the composer was and understand the role that this music played.
True to the anthropologist tradition of participatory observation, Molly decided to learn how to sing Vietnamese war songs herself and was instructed by local vocal instructor Cao Nguyet Hao, a retired member of the Hanoi National Dance and Song Ensemble.
However, "I am a student. I am not a singer," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Armed with a Fulbright scholarship, Molly left her hometown in 2003 to study current women's issues as well as the Vietnamese language in Vietnam as part of a study exchange program between the two countries.
Molly's (Mai Ly in Vietnamese) unexpected love affair with Vietnamese revolutionary songs began while she was making friends and interviewing local women, specifically those who were former political prisoners prior to 1975.
With her parents being social workers and community activists, and her brother very aware of antiwar music movements, it was easy for Mai Ly to get hooked onto war music in Vietnam.
"I know a lot of songs from my parents who are in that generation with Bob Dylan, the Woodstock Concert in 1969. They are very interested and feel very connected whenever we talk about Vietnam, though they did not come here during that time."
"They really lived in that period and know the whole background behind it, including Con Dao Island, famous for its prison built by the French colonial government, because at that time, everything came out in magazines and other media channels."
Molly, who now works for a private company in HCMC, said: "Unlike them, when I hear a certain song or am told about that period, I have to imagine it. Yet, the interesting thing is that like most people in their generation, my parents never thought of or looked for information about modern Vietnam, after the war. They just know about Vietnam in the old days.
"So when I informed them that I was going to Vietnam to study, they were not afraid at all, they were excited. They said, "˜Ok, go to Vietnam and find out about the place.'"
Her journey to Vietnam and into the nation's patriotic music has gone deeper than she might have intended.
Hao has not only taught Molly how to sing and pronounce the lyrics, but also explained the meaning and background of each song, and even introduced her American student to several Vietnam War era musicians, including Pham Tuyen, Phan Huynh Dieu, Luu Nhat Vu and Truong Tuyet Mai.
The most interesting part of Molly's story is not about how she became famous and was invited to perform on local television channels like HTV; and it is not even that she won awards in singing contests.
It is what transpired after she first met 81-year-old composer Pham Tuyen, creator of red music classics like Nhu co Bac Ho trong ngay vui dai thang (As if there were Uncle Ho on the great victorious, happy day) and Gay dan len hoi nguoi ban My (Keep on strumming, my American friends), dedicated to Pete Seeger in 1969.
(L-R) Musician Pham Tuyen, Molly's parents, Molly
Tuyen told her during that 2007 meeting at his house in Hanoi that the song was composed in response to the performance of "Ballad of Ho Chi Minh" by Pete Seeger, 92, an American folk singer and an iconic figure in the mid-twentieth century American folk music revival. He was also in the forefront of antiwar music, leading a march of one million people at Washington DC in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War.
Pete Seeger heard about Tuyen's song when it was broadcast on Cuban La Habana Radio Station several months later. Touched by the song, Pete found a way to go to Hanoi and meet Pham Tuyen in the early 1970s. They had lost touch with each other until Molly visited him.
"Mai Ly is my special fan and singer, not only because she is an American who can sing Vietnamese songs, but also because of her enthusiasm and special love and appreciation for Vietnam's traditional and revolutionary music, which is being ignored by many young local people," said Tuyen.
Molly concurred. "A lot of young Vietnamese people like American songs, and most of them like pop music, while Americans would love to learn more about Vietnamese traditional music.
"Pop music doesn't have real meaning, it's just for fun. When a Vietnamese singer sings an English song, it sounds great, but it doesn't have cultural meaning. I think that traditional music should be exchanged between the two countries, for not many people perform it in my country."
Tuyen said he has more reasons to be grateful to Molly than her interest in Vietnamese revolutionary music.
"More than that, I'm so thankful to Molly for being a bridge for me to reconnect with Pete Seeger."
On February 15, Tuyen received a letter containing the lyrics of Pete Seeger's 200 anti war songs, as well as CD recordings from the American musician and singer.
After their conversation about the background for Gay dan len hoi nguoi ban My, Molly promised to help the Vietnamese musician contact Pete Seeger in the US, for her parents know a lot of artists of that generation.
"It's amazing that Pete, who is so famous and receives a lot of mail everyday, wrote us back after we found how to contact him," said Molly, who sent Pete her translation of four of Pham Tuyen's songs.
With Bob Dylan set to visit Vietnam for a tribute to Trinh Cong Son, the solidarity between artists of the Vietnam War generation is being strengthened.
In his latest letter to Tuyen, the 92-year-old Pete Seeger writes: "I have lost my voice already, yet I am still working. As musicians, our art should overcome language barriers and differences in culture or politics to work for peace."