In the course of the past couple of years, I have been trying to “accomplish” my work. Writing, music. Trying to get some foothold doing these things in the society where I make my home. The external aspects – actions – I believed were a rudimentary part of this, I have performed, or tried to perform, sometimes reluctantly and sheepishly, sometimes with fumbling, desperate ambition, sometimes sincerely. I have often hated it — the effort of “selling” oneself. I have often tried, also, not to do it, to just carry on with the inner work — me in the rooms I’ve worked in, trying to chase, hear, heed my ghosts. At times I have even hoped someone else would do the work of “selling” for me. In the plainest terms: I have been trying to be an artist in the world, but I disliked the “trying” part. Which for me has meant presenting and selling one’s work (intangible as it may be) now as product, “merchandise”, using the outlets and means I have learned to use by seeing others use them – clicks, carts, easy imagery. But the result for me has been, in all honesty, often confusing, nerve-wracking and self-conscious, even disheartening. The satisfying moments have come only in the process of the work itself, and then in those rare moments of contact — when I learn that I have reached someone, communicated something — and the means of measuring those moments is never material or quantifiable, it is only felt. Subtle.
The work I want to mention here – “Origin Tale”, a song – took a long time to record. I began writing it in 2008, in a time of somewhat self-imposed isolation, living in Alaska. There, one day, I received a phone call from out of the blue, from a kind person full of ideas, who had more vision for my work than I myself did: he was the one to suggest to me the possibility of merging both my literary and musical voices, and creating something – a mixed-genre work – having to do with Vietnam. I took in this inspiration. I thought about Vietnam, mythology, war, exodus – all the catch-words of our “story.” I kept writing. The songs becoming longer, also now breaking those rules of format that would usually contain a folk song – verse-chorus-verse-bridge, structure-driven, with predictable repetition of parts and patterns…
But I have to digress here and risk truth-telling, the revealing of some prejudice. To say I have learned a lot from folk music (American), but ultimately not enough. And yet I have sought my place in it for all the years I have dared to call myself a musician.
I was motivated by it, called by it — this music is the reason I began playing music in the first place, the reason I moved to Texas — because of something compelling in its deceptive simplicity and plainspoken-ness, its rigidity and adherence to its own form, at the same time its moments of self-reflexivity, its capacity for self-perpetuation and self-parody, both. There is something grounded, humble yet profound, about folk music. By its very name it suggests itself as a genre of music to be sung in the voices of ordinary people, a music that embodies the underdog, of-the-land, for-the-people character of Americana, of the West — a place where simplicity is chosen over complexity, where instinct is valued over intellect, where the humble and down-trodden uphold virtue better than the striving; also, the structure of this music is very easy to learn – from a certain way of looking at it – it is quite linear and patterned, with emotion/story/revelation easily compartmentalized into certain regions of a song, with chord progressions that circle and resolve quite logically and sensibly, and so are easy to follow. Technique is rewarded; but perhaps even more laudable (at least for the singer) is the earnestness with which you can embody the limits of your technique. All of these elements resonated with me at the time that I found this music. To get in on this ground-level of what it meant to be American, to be ordinary and simple in appearance and expression, yet able to yield surprising wisdoms through that superficial veneer — for some reason, this was a conceptualization of “Americana” that I felt I had to earn my place in. Because it seemed impossible. Because it was in fact so incongruous with my actual story.
I have never in truth had the luxury of seeing myself – or my origins, to be more specific – as ordinary, or as “of the people.” From the standpoint of my Vietnamese emigration story, I was one of the more privileged, who got out early enough to escape the last-day dramas. My mother was educated and we were fairly well-off. We were of the bourgeois, that decadent evil; of the city, not of the country. My mother was not an ordinary woman, not by a long shot. She was a writer (one of the first and few women writers praised as such in her era) as well the publisher of a widely known newspaper. She had fought tooth and nail – for her education, for her status, for her achievements. My birth father, too, was a writer (and soon to endure years in “reeducation” for it). We were always of that class that lauded the intellect and the life of the mind over that of the body (labor) — (we were never – as certain stereotypes would ironically later cast us – “peasants” at all). Rather, we aspired to the privileges of Westernization and modernization, and progressive concepts regarding human freedoms, and the role of governments in securing those freedoms for people, even at the cost of moving us away from those more quaint, more seemingly heart-bound and “simple” values — similar to those sentiments expressed in the American “folk music” I now gravitated toward, was trying vainly – and ironically – to carve my own niche in. But here is the confession I have to make: I was an impostor. From before I even had a choice. I was born into a modern Vietnam – striving to cast off her quaint “folk” qualities – and all those beautiful, virtuous, strong-souled “folk” songs that glorified peace and sensibility did not, in point of fact, address the contradictions of the middle-class, the aspiring, the inbetween-ers. Such as were we.
This is a long, meandering path toward a slow, very slow-dawning realization that comes to me. It is to say that I have learned a lot from the “forms” I have adopted, and adapted myself to, and yet — in writing and singing to myself in that little house surrounded by trees and eagles (and deer, even the occasional bear, out my windows) — was when I began to understand, even to perceive, that there is, perhaps, a deeper and more resounding vein of “folk” (be it music, voice, story) I have yet to tap: that would be relevant to me, as who and how I truly am & came to be, all-told, all-varied — incongruent and mutable, nuanced and strident, a mix of Asian and Western, both bourgeois and refugee, natural (once-rooted) and displaced (uprooted) – to say, I am of all of these things as much as the other, yes – as much of the humble, grounded class as I have been of the aspiring, ambitious, “decadent” class.
& I must here realize: that in my own ambitions to write and sing American folk music, and to claim myself at home in Texas (my own type-casting of ultimate “Americana”), to embody that stereotype of “root”-ed Americana, I was in fact embodying – yet denying – the very contradictions of my Vietnamese persona: the debauched, slightly modernized Southerner trying to re-embody the virtue – the simple wisdoms and motivations – of that glorified humble “folk” person.
Is this relevant? Is this accurate? Or is this yet another misconception of types, ideals, underlying motivations, self-misperceptions? All I know is that at some point I began to realize that I am not really meant to sing American folk music. That I have been wearing a disguise, trying to own it. Or to eradicate certain convoluted truths about myself in it.
I think (& I think I get glimpses of it) that there is an even deeper, more obscure and lesser-known “folk” voice to heed, to listen to, to represent. Maybe. (Even American folk music has roots and veins that run deeper than the popular context might define it – the banjo was a folk instrument that came over from Africa; the content of folk songs can be traced back to the roving poetry of bards in Europe in the Middle Ages; and what of the Native American beats and rhythms, if we want to really investigate the voices that sincerely belong to this land?) It is hard for me to define “folk” as clearly as I would have a couple of years ago. But I also think that this present, still-undefined interpretation of “folk” voice is a tricky space to inhabit. That we still must figure how to navigate it, hear it, effectively and rightfully recognize it.
In Alaska on the winter solstice I went to a ritual bonfire of some folks in Douglas, on the banks of the Gastineau Channel, where people burn effigies and put things in the fire that they want to be rid of, to move away from — into one of these fires I put some of my own music-related artwork, with the intention of burning “ambition”, as I saw it. By this I meant to let it go — my own ambition to be an artist in the world as I had so far conceived of the role.
I went back to Austin in 2009 and did some recording, some touring. I became ambitious again. There were logistical and personal struggles in this process. My relationships, both personal and professional, were affected by this ambition, some things lost, some gained, some difficultly returned….and this song – “Origin Tale” – played a role, to varying degrees, in those lessons and transitions….
In short: The song is not perfect and its coming into being was not always harmonious. The process and the product both are yet experiments. But it is what it is, for the moment. It is a piece of a journey, a search. And so I would like to share it as such for now.
I am not good at winding stories down to neat conclusions or epiphanic endings. My own tendencies seem to lean toward the ambiguous ending. So…
You can listen to origin tale online, or download it here :
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