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.