America Needs a Huong Lan

The legendary Vietnamese singer Huong Lan captured my heart many years ago. I’ve probably listened to this enchanting ballad at least a hundred times. Huong Lan’s amazing voice, so melodical and serene, handles the distinctive intonations of her language with a native ease that always seems surprising. In this voice the Vietnamese soul finds its perfect musical expression, although this particular recording does not do her justice.

America needs a Huong Lan, a similarly gifted singer who is female, feminine, modest, and respectful – an authentically traditional artist who can charm this nation out of the cultural sewer it has chosen to wallow in. Unfortunately our own folk tradition was never fully developed. What we do have has either been eclipsed by the seductive rot of pop culture (jazz, rock, rap, and all the rest of it), or hijacked for political purposes by the imposters of the ’60s and ’70s.

The closest thing we Americans have to genuine folk music is bluegrass and country music. Bluegrass is certainly authentic enough, but due to historical circumstances it isn’t often beautiful. Country music started off with more potential in the beauty department, but today it is over-commericalized and lacking in authenticity. Commercialization isn’t necessarily a problem when people retain a non-commerical culture, but in the land where Herbert Hoover could say “the business of America is business”, commercialization is the death of culture.

Watch this video and catch a glimpse of what happens when a real traditional culture encounters modernity but is not swallowed by it. Apart from the tacky disco lights, what I see is a healthy synthesis. There are young and old in the audience, the men are conservatively dressed and wearing neckties, and Huong Lan herself is dressed in the lovely traditional Vietnamese ao dai. She has a highly trained and disciplined voice, excellent posture, a subtle and graceful manner – perfection, or nearly so. She’s aiming for something elevated and objective – for beauty rather than emotion, novelty, or shock value. It’s reminiscent of an earlier time in America, when popular singers like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Doris Day, Patty Page and others were artists first and entertainers second.

If you’re hooked, here’s more Huong Lan at The New Beginning.


12 thoughts on “America Needs a Huong Lan

  1. You cannot really lump jazz with the rest of it

    For a spirited (and sometimes over-the-top I’ll grant) defense of jazz, try Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music by Martha Bayles


  2. “Vietnamese girls sound eminently marriageable!”

    Indeed they are, Adrian – and I can prove it too! :-)

    “You cannot really lump jazz with the rest of it (especially if you are praising Bing Crosby).”

    The jazz of “Play a Simple Melody” is OK, because it’s Bing Crosby and is contained within a real song. Live Dixieland jazz is OK if it’s outdoors in Old Sacramento and there’s time enough to drink a lot of beer. But as a genre, jazz is narcissistic, a descent into chaos and formlessness, inspiring little more than unfocused emoting.


  3. But as a genre, jazz is narcissistic, a descent into chaos and formlessness, inspiring little more than unfocused emoting.

    Sorry, Jeff, but you are just plain off target here. Jazz is precisely focused, generally around a tightly conceived harmonic structure (or, in the case of Modal Jazz, the modes of Gregorian Chant). It uses a traditional melodic “vocabulary” and has little room for narcissists (who tend to get served up great heaping mounds of humility by their betters). And to look at jazz as excessively emotive is to completely ignore the music of Paul Desmond, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson (a Mozartean if ever there could be another), Dexter Gordon (at his best), etc., etc., etc.


  4. I became a fan of Cải lương through my contacts with Buffalo’s Vietnamese community. I was impressed that even young people and folks from the lower classes enjoyed this classical form.

    About jazz, I have to agree with Mr. Keilholtz. If jazz is “narcissistic, a descent into chaos and formlessness, inspiring little more than unfocused emoting,” it did not become so until the 1950s and ’60s. (I appreciate bebop and even free jazz–I think jazz ended with fusion–but can understand those who don’t.) New Orleans and big band swing were about not about “chaos and formlessness” but about freedom and joy. (Just listen to Duke Ellington’s “Jump For Joy” and you’ll see what I mean.) Pope Pius XII was a fan of Jazz, and invited Louie Armstrong to the Vatican for a personal audience.


  5. “Never play anything the same way twice.” – Louis Armstrong

    That doesn’t sound very “precisely focused” to me, Erik. I’m sure Louis Armstrong was otherwise a fine fellow, but what is this but a recipe for musical anarchy? It is the philosophical cousin of “No Limits!”, “Question Authority”, “Follow Your Heart”, and other intellectual desecrations.

    My paternal grandfather was a jazz musician, a drummer, and apparently a very good one. My father also had a great love for jazz. Until about age 7 or 8 I listened to jazz almost daily. From what I have observed, jazz doesn’t lend itself to anything but a completely dissolute lifestyle.

    Here’s Richard Weaver on jazz:

    “Jazz has no need of intelligence; it only needs feeling. Jazz, by formally repudiating restraint by intellect, and by expressing contempt for and hostility toward our traditional society, has destroyed the equilibrium between reason and sentiment.

    It is understandable, therefore, that jazz should have a great appeal to civilization’s fifth column, to the barbarians within the gates.

    The driving impulse behind jazz is best grasped through its syncopation. What it indicates spiritually is a restlessness, a desire to get on, to realize without going through the aesthetic ritual it seems to say, let us dispense with the labor of earning results. Do we not read in this another form of contempt for labor?

    Playing now becomes personal; the musician seizes a theme and improvises as he goes …

    It is a music not of dreams but of drunkenness. The highest centers have been proscribed so that the lower may be uninhibited …”


  6. There’s a great discussion of music – primarily rock music – at the Touchstone blog for anyone interested.

    Mr. Hutchins writes:

    “The problem is indeed the inability to ‘offer a better alternative.’ How much you said in that! This is fundamental to rock music, what I refer to in terms of barbarism–that is, the deliberately and calculatedly retrograde–mockery–the cynical rejection of good, true, and beautiful along with the corruptions of these that are rightly recognized as hypocrisy– and rebellion, that is, belligerent assertion of the autonomous self in the face not simply of the abuse of power and the abusers’ pretenses to goodness, but the beautiful, the noble, and the superior, before which men are called to bow.

    It is all one, whether one is part of the darkness or, being unable to offer anything better, merely curses it. Rock is a subterranean thing, a saprophyte that grows on decay. Because it has no light, no ‘better alternative,’ it has no reference to anything beautiful–to love, sorrow, nobility, hope, or the cleaner sorts of joy, laughter, or fun. It has no ditties, no gambols, no yodels, no hymns, no laments, but (Whitman’s true child!) amplifies its barbaric yawps mightily over the roofs of the world, singing intently, and with great seriousness, of its dark and bloody self. It is a bondage from which men are delivered by exposure to light.”

    Living in the rock music nirvana we all inhabit today, those who quibble with his generalizations are probably working from different definitions of “love”, “sorrow”, “hope”, etc., than would be proper to a Christian worldview.


  7. I’m gonna roll to the library tonight for Hole in Our Soul because I seem to recall her engaging Weaver’s analysis. For now I should point out that he is afaik quoting a jazz defender when he talks about the feeling rather than intelligence. But it seems we need to determine if this defender wasn’t completely off his rocker just as we scoff when an anti-Catholic finds the most fogbound Catholic in the universe to quote as evidence. Anyone who has actually played jazz knows it is loaded with formal theory and structure and has set of rules that if one strays from, fellow bandmates will look at you like tarantulas are crawling out your nose.


  8. “I’m gonna roll to the library tonight for Hole in Our Soul because I seem to recall her engaging Weaver’s analysis.”

    I look forward to reading what she has to say. Post it here, if you can. And thanks for the book recommendation.

    “Anyone who has actually played jazz knows it is loaded with formal theory and structure and has set of rules that if one strays from, fellow bandmates will look at you like tarantulas are crawling out your nose.”

    Could be an “honor among thieves” kind of thing going on.


  9. I look forward to reading what she has to say. Post it here, if you can.

    Will do. I’ll read Weaver as well because he actually sounds like my kinda guy. Much like Allan Bloom, who also covered music but I and many other musicians found that his apparent lack of direct knowledge of music (even the classical music he liked) dampened his otherwise excellent analysis. So I tend to defer to Henry Pleasants whose Agony of Modern Music from the 50’s infuriated the serious music world by pointing out the ruin that genuine aural chaos from atonalist composers wracked on the world and that it was in jazz where traditional tonality and harmonic progression was preserved. Then again, he wrote a decade later that jazz went the way of serious music into chaos. So it seemed more a case of bad culture wrecking both high (serious music) and low (jazz) culture. But I am getting ahead of myself and need to hit the books.


  10. The thing is, if we are to decry Armstrong’s advice to “never play the same thing the same way twice,” we are not decrying anarchy at all, unless we also believe that none should speak except in pre-composed speaches. Even in baroque music, one, if one is good, rarely plays anything exactly the same way twice. A figured bass, standard in the baroque, is an invitation to embelish and ornament. If one were to saw through Bach the same way each time, one would have nothing but the borish sort of recordings that came out of the mid-twentieth century.

    The point with jazz, as with any ordered improvisational music, is that the improvisation must conform to a strict framework, in terms of harmony, melodic material, and structure (most evident in the early bebop recordings, or in any piece that features the so-called head arrangement). Even in most forms of “free jazz” there is far from an anything goes sort of arrangement.

    Mr. Weaver, well, he sounds like he doesn’t know what he is talking about at all. I have no idea why you quoted him. Is he considered an authority on the matter? If so, by whom?

    As to the lifestyle that jazz leads to, I know and have known many jazz musicians, from local professionals to major-league legends, and would say that they run the gamut, just as in any walk of life, but for the most part they are more disciplined than most. The worst lifestyles of any musicians (and I am not counting Rock musicians, which includes a whole load of dreadful amateurs as well as some serious musicians), are those of the ones that specialize in (and believe in the wretched philosophy behind) nineteenth century Romantic music. Narcissists, sexual libertines, shallow virtuosi, and you name it are found in abundance there.

    Now, the case has been made against atonalism, but, again, it is being made from ignorance. The worst stuff, in terms of our culture’s moral character, comes from the various neo-tonalists: it is in this camp that you will find the poofters, vegetarians, and assorted sycophants. You want bad, like, rotten to the core evil, all you have to do is turn to the insipid treacle of the notorious poofter Aaron Copland.


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