When attempting to speak on any issue related to a military conflict, even as trivial as related music, there’s a lot of context that’s needed. In 500 to 750 words, there’s no way I could possibly delve into causes and effects of Vietnam War with the proper level of detail, so if you think you need more background, looking into it would be a smart decision.
What can be said, (in the most reductionist manner possible), is the Vietnam War was seen as a fight to contain communism by South Vietnam, and as a fight to liberate the South from outside influences by North Vietnam.
In America, there are tons of songs from widely acclaimed artists like Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival about the conflict that remain culturally relevant. Maybe it’s due to distance or the still generally negative view of the conflict in the public eye, but the music of the North Vietnamese during the time period is rarely considered.
“Vietnam Will Win!”, a compilation of songs by various artists about the “liberation” of Vietnam, was released in 1971 via American label Paredon Records. The label, founded by political activists Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber, focused on highlighting protest music. The record was issued by Dane in Washington, D.C. following anti-war demonstrations.
Somewhat ironically, this record is full of Western influence. The opening and closing tracks are two different versions of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, (a North Vietnamese shadow government opposed to the Republic of Vietnam). The former sounds strikingly like a John Phillip Sousa composition, while the latter sounds very similar to marches used by Nazi Germany. Various styles of march can be heard in the track list.
The accordion, a holdover of the French occupation, is also frequently used throughout the record. “Song of the Liberation Soldiers” prominently features accordion as the only instrument accompanying the vocals on the track.
There are Vietnamese influences on the record too. Vietnamese folk generally takes more influence from Chinese folk music than from that of other Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand and Laos. Tracks that take influence from Vietnamese folk, like “To You Who Volunteer in the Army”, all feature female singers and strings.
No matter the style or genre, these songs are all tangibly patriotic.
Also released via Paredon Records in 1971 is “Vietnam: Songs of Liberation”. This compilation of songs recorded by unidentified performers feels like way more of a mixed bag.
Aside from a handful of Western-style marches, (once again featuring accordion), the music takes a lot more cues from Vietnamese folk. Still, that doesn’t make it feel more homogenous.
There’s certainly a triumphant air here, but some songs just feel plain happy. Others are more dolorous, like the absolutely beautiful piano and string ballad “Lullaby”. The way the lead instrument practically sings atop the gorgeous backing feels forlorn.
“Pestle Thuds Resound in Bam Bo Village” definitely stands out among the rest of the tracks. I really love how it incorporates elements of American and Vietnamese folk together. Hearing instruments that play the same role for totally different cultures come together in one song so well is really nice.
“The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh” was released in 1976 via – you guessed it – Paredon Records. The record was released one year after the fall of South Vietnam and eight years after the death of Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.
It opens with an orchestral swell that feels straight out of a Classical Hollywood soundtrack. Vu Thien Dinh, (I don’t know either, it’s his only credited appearance in anything), begins to read a speech about the mistreatment of the Vietnamese by French imperialists and Japanese forces in WWII. The track is closed out by some a capella singing in Vietnamese.
The description of the first track, a speech with occasional support from Western and Vietnamese music, can be applied to much of this record, notwithstanding some standout moments.
The most moving track for me here was “Vietnamese Women and French Domination”. The song recounts the gruesome torture and murder of Vietnamese civilians, in this case elderly men and a young girl, over a haunting vocal performance from a female singer.
Two very short tracks contain speeches by Ho in English. The lack musical backdrops, which is good because they don’t really have the greatest audio quality.
Two triumphant folk ballads, written by sympathetic Cubans and sung in Spanish also find their way onto the record.