James Durst and Vietnam


A month or so ago, I went on a tear downloading Vietnamese music from the 1960’s and 70’s. This involved going on a lot of Vietnamese language forums and dumbing my way through things using Google Translate. The things I look for in a Vietnamese pop song from the 60’s and the things actual Vietnamese people look for are not always the same. Fuzz guitar and funky breaks are not always what someone’s Vietnamese grandmother wants in a tune.

The compilation “Saigon Rock and Soul” is a good primer on this music, albeit with a few caveats. Many of the tracks are mislabeled, which strikes me as odd, as it seems like a fair amount of homework went into compiling the album. For example, this song:

is really this:

There is nothing more infuriating than compilations that purposely put out incorrect info, so I hope this wasn’t intentional. After going through so many mislabeled mp3s myself, I could only figure that the same thing happened to them with cassettes and reel to reel tapes. And, I personally don’t know any 60something Vietnamese people who could set me straight, either. After about a week of late night downloading sessions, I had probably found most of the tunes from that compilation.

One night when sorting through Vietnamese covers of “Want Ads” and “Killing Me Softly,” I opened up an mp3 to be greeted by a haunting acoustic guitar, followed by a distinctly American voice singing in English. I checked the mp3 tags, it was indeed tagged in Vietnamese. Odd. About 2/3 of the way through the song, the American man was replaced by a different voice singing the same melody in Vietnamese.

The song was tagged as “Rồi xa người xa tình (Growing Away – LV Phạm Duy)” by Duy Quang. This didn’t help me too much. Somehow, through googling phrases from the lyrics, I discovered the song was called “Growing Away” by an American folk singer named James Durst.

Durst toured Vietnam in 1974, which when you think about it, is downright odd. By 1974, almost all US troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, thanks to those princes of peace, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissenger. The main US troop forces left in 1973, part of the famed “Vietnamization” process, leaving behind only 8,500 American civilians, embassy guards, defense office soldiers, and CIA spooks. Some sites I have found even stated the amount of US troops to be as low as 130, which surely is some creative math, as I feel like those videos of people hanging off of helicopters during the fall of Saigon have more than 130 soldiers in them. Regardless, by 1974 US presence in Vietnam was waning. I wonder if the Americans in Vietnam (and the South Vietnamese) could see the writing on the wall, whether in front of their face or in a dark corner of their mind, about the future of the country.

What a time and place to ship over an earnest folk singer! Durst himself summerizes the trip on his website thusly: Toured throughout South Vietnam with and translated 15 songs into English by renowned Vietnamese composer-performer Pham Duy (who translated 10 of James’ songs into Vietnamese), publishing a bi-lingual songbook, Songs/Ca Khuc, together under the auspices of the Vietnamese American Association in Saigon, 1974.

The Vietnamese American Association was funded by the US Information Agency, a sort of cross between the CIA and a PR firm. One has to wonder
why they thought, at that point in the war, that sending over some hippie with a guitar was a good idea. Once they had this idea, how did they select Durst? How do they find a folksinger in 1974 willing to go to Vietnam, who isn’t going to pull a Jane Fonda and take some tourist snapshots of themselves aiming anti-aircraft guns at yankee imperialists? What kind of screening did Durst go through? Or was the war such a lost cause at that point that they would take any American who would willingly hop on a plane to Vietnam?


Durst himself maintained his affection for Vietnam, visiting the country again in 2011, to visit and pay tribute to Pham Duy on the occasion of his 91st birthday. Durst describes Duy as Vietnam’s “Pete Seeger/Woody Guthrie.” Fittingly enough for a man given that comparison, Duy recorded a record on the famed Folkways label in 1968 consisting of a mix of traditional folk songs and his own compositions.


The album was recorded in Vietnam by the American folk singer Stephan Addis, who also recorded one of Duy’s original songs with his folk duo Addis & Crofut on Columbia records.

Here’s a very brief clip of Addis singing the song with Duy!

After the fall of Saigon, Duy moved with his family to Orange County, California where he lived for 30 years. However, in 2005, Duy returned to Vietnam to live, and remained there until his death in January of 2013. James Durst still records and performs to this day. He can be found on Facebook.

The Vietnamese American Association kept going to the very last days of the war, as employee Jackie Bong-Wright testifies:

I was the director of culture activities for the Vietnamese American Association, called VAA. I organized art exhibits, concerts, lectures and all kinds of programs that were sponsored by the USIS, U.S. Information Service, and U.S. Embassy. And there were a lot of Americans and Vietnamese who participated.

I think that for the last month of April, Vietnamese could not believe that the end was near. Because we never thought that the Americans would be defeated and would abandon us. So during the last few weeks there was some kind of a panic. But it’s not physical, although everyone was very fearful for himself or herself. And we tried our best to get out, especially the last four weeks, or three weeks. That time the U.S. Embassy and USIS asked us to stay open, because we were a bi-national, bi-cultural center. We had to be open until the end in order not to show panic among the people. There were about nearly 25,000 Vietnamese who went to the VAA to learn English as a second language. And I organized, nearly every day, exhibitions and concerts and all these cultural activities – so we had to stay open. But at the end it was clear that we would have the fall of Saigon one day, since President Thieu withdrew troops from around Saigon.

We were told to be ready to go at any time. They tried, Americans tried, to help us as much as they could. But because of the situation and the secret, we were not told when and how to get out, and when to be ready. And we had to wait. And when the time came to be at the USIS compound to be ready to get out, the bus didn’t come. And this is why many of them were left.


About peter

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3 Responses to James Durst and Vietnam

  1. James Durst says:

    Hello Peter,
    I’d like to thank you for your interesting and insightful article that I stumbled upon while Googling other things. My going to Vietnam in 1974 was but one example of the ‘serendipitous synchronicity’ that has characterized my musical life. I suppose I could use the term ‘career’ as I seem to have careered from one experience to another over the years. In 1970, when visiting a friend in München, I attended a concert at the American Cultural Center – called Amerika Haus – of three American English teachers from the American International School, singing American folk songs. Throughout the concert I found myself thinking, “Hey! I could do this!” I met with the Amerika Haus Director, presented him with a small demo disk I’d made and he offered to arrange a tour of Amerika Häuser throughout Germany. The result was my very first international tour in 1971 of Germany plus Iceland and Sweden, after which I settled in Copenhagen for a couple of years, essentially fertilizing and honing my songwriting craft there. The success of that initial tour paved the way for other USIS-sponsored tours to follow in 1972 (Cyprus, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Greece & Beirut), 1974 (return to Cyprus & Beirut, then to Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore & Vietnam), 1976 to Bucharest and then in more recent years, such divergent locales as Azerbaijan, Honduras, El Salvador, India and Israel. In addition to cultural performers like myself, USIS presented speakers, filmmakers and such as well. I often found myself traveling in the mighty wake of the likes of Duke Ellington and Alvin Ailey, whose tours were mounted and financed out of Washington. My own performances were, I learned later, referred to as “Targets of Opportunity,” wherein I was picked up having already made my own way to the region. My early Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian tours were coordinated by the London USIS office. USIS, by the way, has since been absorbed into the State Department and steadily defunded. If I was innocently exploited toward the goal of ‘winning hearts and minds,’ I’d have to say that I was fortunate to have in return exploited the opportunities afforded me to see and experience the world and evolve an already burgeoning global consciousness that has informed my work to this day. My most recent CD (released Earth Day 2013), entitled ‘My Country is the World’ boasts 20 tracks in 19 languages, songs both original and collected reflecting a unifying theme of planetary citizenship.

    In two weeks I’m off again to Israel, this time completely on my own steam, with 10 concerts over the three weeks of my stay. In addition to the prolific and personable Pham Duy – with whom it was my privilege to tour throughout South Vietnam in ’74 and visit again in 2011, my primary inspirations remain the likes of nonagenarians Pete Seeger and Issachar Miron (who wrote The Weavers’ first hit song, ‘Tzena Tzena’). As long as I can remain vertical and sing and play in tune, I’ll keep doing the only thing I know how to do.


  2. James Durst says:

    PS. I might add that my acceptance of the USIS invitation to go to Southeast Asia I regarded as something of a vindication, having sought status as a Conscientious Objector in 1969. As you insightfully pointed out, ’74 was, as the Chinese might say, an “interesting” time to go to Vietnam. Oddly enough, in the seven weeks of my 2 sojourns there that spring, not once did I hear a shot fired or so much as a voice raised in anger. I learned a lot that year about media coverage of world events.

  3. peter says:

    Mr Durst,
    Thank you so much for your information concerning your career and the USIS… really interesting stuff. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to tour places like Vietnam, Cyprus, Lebanon, Turkey, and Laos in the early 70’s. Glad you are still doing what you love.


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