Phạm Duy, a prolific musician whose life and career spanned some of the most turbulent parts of Vietnamese history, passed away Sunday at his home in Vietnam, eight years after returning to his birth country from Orange County. He was 91, and his death came just more than a month after that of his eldest son, singer Duy Quang.
Phạm Duy, whose real name is Phạm Duy Cẩn, left a vast treasure of more than a thousand orginal songs, many of which are known and memorized by generations of Vietnamese. His music is appreciated for having a hint of folk tunes of Vietnam, and his lyrics are among the best uses of Vietnamese poetic rhythm in songs.
Even his personal life is unique and reflects the tumult of modern Vietnam. Born in Hanoi to a progressive writer who advocated for mass education in French-occupied Vietnam, Phạm Duy pursued further studies in Paris, where he also audited classes at the Institute of Musicology.
Returning home, he performed in a touring troupe before joining the Viet Minh during the war against the French. It was during that time that he met just about every top communist official in music and art, stories he would later tell in his four-volume memoirs published in California in 1989.
After 6 years in the jungle, when his wife became pregnant with Duy Quang he left the Viet Minh and returned to Hanoi, then still under French control.
In 1954, when the Geneva Accords gave the Viet Minh control over North Vietnam, Pham Duy went south and settled in Saigon. The communist north branded him a traitor. Even as his songs became hugely popular in the south, they were banned in the north.
When South Vietnam fell in 1975, Pham Duy took his family out, landed in Arkansas, and slowly made their way to Orange County, making a home in Midway City, which he would translate to Vietnamese as “Thị trấn giữa đàng” – the city in the middle of the way.
He continued to compose, and even in the 1990s his new songs based on the poetry of his former resistance friend Hoàng Cầm became great hits. (Hoang Cam himself was subjected to a communist purge in the 1950s and his poems were banned for several decades.)
In 2005, the city in the middle of the way became literally so, when Phạm Duy announced he was leaving the U.S. to go live the remainder of his life in Vietnam.
His decision triggered criticism from many conservative Vietnamese-Americans, who view his actions as showing sympathy with the communists.
Upon returning to Vietnam, Phạm Duy continued to perform those few of his songs that the government has allowed to be used again. He had been pushing to have more and more of his songs permitted. And there were a lot of them: A collection of his lyrics published in the 1980s was entitled “Ngàn lời ca” – A Thousand Lyrics.
In addition to his compositions and memoirs, Phạm Duy also wrote a guitar method book set and several studies of Vietnamese music, including the English-language Musics of Vietnam, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
His wife, singer Thái Hằng, had passed away in 1999. Phạm Duy’s other sons and daughters and their children who survive him include stars of Vietnamese music: Arranger Duy Cường, and singers Thái Hiền, Thái Thảo, who is married to singer Tuấn Ngọc.