MEKONG DELTA BLUES

August 19, 2021 – 7:18 am

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On August 13, Texas-born singer and songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. She was 68. Back in 2000, Nanci Griffith and Sheryl Crow campaigned for a landmine-free world.
 
Here is a BigO At-The-Scene Exclusive. Report and pictures by Nazir Husain. Published in BigO #171 [March 2000].

The small South-east Asian kingdom of Cambodia is reputed to have at least seven million landmines scattered all over and remains a graveyard where the ghosts of the Cold War refuse to die.

Take a walk down the streets of the capital city Phnom Penh and you can virtually see them all - Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and, though he is still alive, Henry Kissinger. This is because its dark history spills over to the present, accounting for the bitterness of the country and its people.

In 1991, Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Six years later the Campaign won the Nobel Peace Prize and more than 120 countries, excluding $ingapore, signed the international treaty to ban landmines.

In 1998, when the treaty was ratified, the VVAF launched the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. The ratification of the treaty was the end of one process and the beginning of another. VVAF’s new campaign identifies three areas of work necessary to end the scourge of landmines: assistance to victims, demining and public education.

In January 2000, Sheryl Crow and Nanci Griffith travelled to Cambodia and Vietnam with the VVAF to visit the organisation’s humanitarian programmes and to see the impact of the landmines in a region devastated by the weapon.

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At the Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Centre. Picture by FSA Ally.

NANCI GRIFFITH: COMING TO TERMS IN CAMBODIA

For Nanci Griffith, the trauma of the Vietnam War is very real. Her ex-husband, Eric Taylor, is a Vietnam survivor who returned from the war with a heroin addiction. She tolerated all the abuse she could bear from him before ending their six-year marriage.

Griffith is speaking to BigO in an exclusive interview in January 2000 on the rooftop of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh, a French colonial-style building on Sisowath Quay overlooking the Mekong River.

Griffith revealed that being in Hanoi the past few days had opened her eyes.

“Eric came back to America with a devastating drug habit. It probably had a lot to do wiht us not staying together those years he was in Vietnam. He was so affected,” the singer-songwriter said.

“Seeing all those places that Eric had been to, the city of Hanoi and the once famous prison known as Hanoi Hilton, I began to understand some of the pain he must have gone through.

“It is really an experience to be in Hanoi. The people are so incredible. I was at the war museum , and inside is the museum of mothers which is filled with incredible stories. It is a place I could probably spend a year of my life in. All these biographies of all these mothers who’ve lost their sons and daughters.”

Turning to her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), Griffith says the most important thing is to get the information to people back home so they can make a difference.

“The people back home need to know, and i know my fans are very interested about my work with the landmine ban. This is not a natural disaster. I think the most important thing they want to know is what they can do to help victims, remove landmines and eliminate the manufacture and proliferation of landmines.”

Griffith pauses to catch her breath. Her eyes wander to the view of the Mekong River running past in the horizon. These days she tires easily. She was operated for breast cancer three years ago, and last year finished a course of radiotheraphy to deal with thyroid cancer.

Her life reads like a biography. You can still hear the echo of this and other trials - her parents’ divorce; her violent marriage to Taylor; her 10 largely homeless years driving from bar gig to bar gig all over America - in Griffith’s songs of loneliness and loss and cussed self-sufficiency.

Her recent health record could well stand as a metaphor for the state of folk music which has been fighting a battle ever since a conservative music industry decided to distance itself from a left-leaning genre in the early ’70s. Folk musicians ruefully say that folk has become the F word.

Griffith has blown away the cobwebs. For a dozen or so years, the songbird with a country accent has been the folk singer people have used as a route map round the territory. She in turn has deployed her own musical standing to exhume the reputation of folk music which has found it hard to find a modern audience.

“I’ve always been a folk-music advocate and archivist and believed that it is a musical art form that needs to be preserved. Folk music captures our social times and climate for the next generation of us to learn from. It is of extraordinary importance to keep passing it on to the next generation and we seem to do that.” Griffith says folk music has a continuing tradition of raising social issues. “The other day at the American embassy in Hanoi, Ambassador Pete Peterson asked if I could sing Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer.

“That song was written in 1948. In that it talks about a global society. It rings with the same truth now as it did then. Some people say that change will never happen but if you say it long enough, loud enough and often enough, then maybe someday it will. There is one human value that we all share and this is love our brothers and sisters.”

Griffith will be doing her bit to raise awareness of the campaign when she returns to the US. She plans to fund and organise, with the Vietnam Veterans Association Foundation (VVAF), an art programme for children recuperating at the rehabilitation centre.

“The VVAF can help organise some artwork, get the children doing fun things with their hands and send the artwork to me, Sheryl Crow or Emmylou Harris. Let us organise some artwork with our T-shirt concessionaires and get some T-shirts going out there to raise funds. That is my big project when I get home.”

CODA


Click on the graphic for a better view.

When I ran into Nanci Griffith at the lobby of Le Royal Hotel the next afternoon, she was flushed with excitement. She was so inspired by her experiences in Indochina, she had been up all night writing songs.

Later she parked herself at a poolside table to write out the words to her new song, Traveling Through This Part Of You, an ode to her ex-husband acknowledging she had come to terms with his past. Griffith gave a copy of the handwritten lyrics to BigO, which is reproduced here.

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Picture by FSA Ally.

SOMETHING TO CROW ABOUT

Sheryl Crow’s memory of the Vietnam War is mostly perceived as a television war.

“I was born in 1962 and the biggest part of the war was happening between ‘64 and ‘75. I was pretty young and don’t remember much about it. I remember the end of the war and the disillusionment people felt about our involvement. It was only much later, as an adult that I understood what the disillusionment was about.”

Crow, 37, a former music teacher from tiny Kennett, Missouri, is one of the hardest-working women in rock ‘n’ roll. Since the release of her second album, Sheryl Crow, in 1996, the former backup singer for Michael Jackson and Don Henley completed a third album called The Globe Sessions, rocked out on the Grammy Awards, picked up the trophy for best rock album and then gave a pointed speech about how the consolidation of major labels is affecting creativity.

She then went on to tour with her own band, playing bass for the first time in concert. She recorded a version of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child Of Mine for the Adam Sandler movie, Big Daddy. She sang with both Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter in a tribute concert to Johnny Cash, performing on all the shows on Lilith Fair and produced a new album for Stevie Nicks.

In July, she performed at Woodstock ‘99, sang a duet with Emmylou Harris on a Gram Parsons tribute album and recorded a live album at Central Park.

Crow also had a rough time. There was an affair with Eric Clapton (the likely subject of a song called My Favourite Mistake), the death of a former boyfriend and allegations she took credit for a song that wasn’t all her own. Wal-Mart banned the Sheryl Crow album because one fo the songs had a line that suggested the chain sells guns to kids.

But she made time to visit Indochina, squeezing it into her busy schedule promoting here new album, Live In Central Park. “I’ve been involved with the anti-landine association for a while, being educated on what’s really going on. It’s a very big problem and people in the USA don’t necessarily know what they are or what the statistics are.

“When I get home, I’ll probably tune into what the association needs. It could mean getting somebody who is recognisable going otu and spreading the message or raising money. I’m astounded how beautiful it is here and in Vietnam. The simplicity of the people working with their hands, that’s a lovely sight. It’s a wonderful thing to come to a place with no McDonald’s.

“I didn’t expect the people to be so open and so warm in Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s probably different in Cambodia because people are still suffering from the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. It’s something very fresh in their memories.

“We’ve gone to several different hospitals fitting kids with prosthetics and braces that’s funded by the VVAF. It’s really amazing when you see such joy and hope. There’s just so much encouragement in their faces.”

Crow thinks it’s natural that musicians contribute to social causes. “As long as musicians have been around, they have been involved. Peers of mine like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam have been involved in social issues from the very beginning. It’s the norm and it just depends on what the cause is.”

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At the Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Centre. Picture by FSA Ally.

HOLIDAY IN CAMBODIA

Monday January 17, Phnom Penh. Three people are folding their limbs into a mini-bus parked outside the elegant Hotel Le Royal. They looked an improbable menage. A white-haired man with tortoise shell glasses and a broad-brimmed hat; a tall, frail woman in long-sleeved flannel shirt buttoned to the top and a rugged younger woman with short blck hair.

If you dropped a bomb on the mini-bus, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton would suddenly find themselves attending a lot of funerals.

The mini-bus speeding down Mao Tse Tung Boulevard was carrying Nanci Griffith, Sheryl Crow and their road manager, Phil Kaufman, who is something of a minor-celebrity “rock star nanny,” to the Kien Khleang Rehabilitation facility, where victims of landmines are fitted with prosthetic limbs and taught self-reliance.

Crow and Griffith are there on the invitation of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) which is the co-founder and coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

By familiarising musicians with the work of landmine workers, the VVAF is hoping to generate awareness among music fans and put pressure on politicians to sign a treaty banning its use. The foundation hopes the visit will help focus attention on the issue, particularly on the task of clearing the mines and on the needs of those who have been injured on minefields.

Crow and Griffith have personally taken on the cause, travelling to Cambodia and Vietnam with VVAF to visit the organisation’s humanitarian programmes and to see firsthand the impact of landmines in a region devastated by the weapon.

Crow has been an advocate of a ban on landmines since a visit to Bosnia three years ago. She described her first encounter with landmines in Bosnia.

“Riding in the helicopter, you see all these smoking lands,” she said. Her celebrity status gives her “the luxury to talk about it wherever I go.” After her trip she wrote a song called Redemption Day. The liner notes to Crow’s recent album, The Globe Sessions, contains an anti-landmine appeal.

Griffith had played several benefit concerts in aid of ICBL. “There will never be peace in a country like Cambodia as long as there are landmines. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility to make the world a better place for people who don’t have the freedom to outside their home,” Griffith said.

At the Rehabilitation Centre, artificial limbs and physical rehabilitation are free to any Cambodian. Unfortunately, there is plenty of business. At the facility, Crow and Griffith marvelled at the ingenuity of relief workers, who assembled wheelchairs and other devices from materials available to them. But they also witnessed how dramatically the lives of victims had been altered.

They meet a young soldier who is learning to walk with a prosthesis. A few months ago, he lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine, but he considers himself lucky to have merely lost a leg. His two friends were killed by the mine.

Later, the French doctor conducting the tour confessed that the hardest part of the job is getting the amputees to actually come to the centre for help. In the strong Buddhist belief system, the Cambodians see life as suffering and the unquestioning acceptance of one’s fate - which often precludes the handicapped from seeking help.

Lee Ann Jarvis, a friend of Crow, whips out a Polaroid Spectre from her grab-bag and takes pictures of the children. She hands the instant snapshots to the bewildered children, who break out into smiles realising the little treasures are for them to savour and keep. This simple act means a lot to them.

After watching a group of wheelchair-bound landmine victims play an impromptu game of wheelchair basketball, Griffith says: “Lack of handicap access makes their injury life-ending, even if it doesn’t end their lives.”

“We tend to get so isolated in America, so self-absorbed. I just think we can use the spotlight to inform people and let them make their own decisions,” Griffith said later in a lunch interview at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a colonial building overlooking the Mekong River.

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The Map of Death at Tuol Sleung Museum of Genocide.

If the world knows anything at all about Cambodia, it’s probably the tragic history associated with this South-east Asian country, sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand. Much of what is know about Cambodia comes from news coverage of the Vietnam War and the Academy Award-winning film, The Killing Fields, both of which conjured up horrific images.

Another type of sinister ruins remain in Cambodia. According to some reports, seven to 10 million landmines were laid by the terrorist Khmer Rouge army in the mid-’70s during the civil war that ripped Cambodia apart. Though the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in 1979, the landmines are still just waiting to be detonated by innocent feet.

The statistics are staggering. An estimated 80,000 Cambodians have been maimed or killed by landmines. One out of every 236 Cambodians has been injured by landmines, and another 300 innocent people a month lose their limbs. More than eight out of 10 landmines victims are civilians. And most sickening of all - children suffer inordinately high casualties as troops send them ahead into suspected minefields as guinea pigs.

The origins of Cambodia’s current troubles go back to March 1970, when the US Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup against the Cambodian government headed by King Sihanouk and replaced it with the weka, corrupt, despostic rule of General Lon Nol. For Cambodians, the next five years were the most decisive in their modern history as the country got sucked into the Vietnam War.

Kissinger’s so-called “secret” bombing of the Cambodia countryside killed at least half a million people and forced much of the population to join or support the little-known Khmer Rouge. At the time, there were few journalists and even fewer international observers reporting on the intimidation, violence and, indeed, genocide, by American forces against the Cambodian people.

While the end of the war brought stable amd moderate governments in both neighbouring Laos and Vietnam, Cambodians had the misfortune of coming under the rule of Pol Pot and his caucus of ultra-nationalist, super-Maoist extremists. Another million or more perished in the next four years in what has been described by many as the worst crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world since Nazism.

In January 1979 - while much of the world had given up hope on Cambodia - liberation for its people from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime came in the form of a ragtag band of low-level Khmoer Rouge defectors backed by the powerful Vietnam army. The ousting of Pol Pot was an event which the rest of the world should have celebrated along with the Cambodian people. But instead, what happened will go down as one of modern history’s most bizarre instances of prejudice overcoming obvious sense: the victors were punished.

The new Cambodian government, headed by the precursor of the incumbent Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), was ostracised, denied crucially required aid and subverted by the US and China, both of which had an axe to grind with Vietnam, the government’s backer.

In their fury against Vietnam later that year, the Chinese launched a bloody border war they lost. Meantime, the US, with the help of countries like Thailand, armed and fed anti-CPP groups - including from the Khmer Rouge - along the Thai-Cambodia border.

The civil war dragged on throughout the ’80s and killed several thousands more in a country where the Pol Pot regime had destroyed every bit of basic infrastructure - money, health, transport, education.

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From the comfort and and safety of a jet, the countryside near Phnom Penh is lush, with palm trees and flat fields of rice paddies bordered by a wide, shallow river that looks like an ocean. It is hard to imagine the devastation that the Pol Pot regime had wrought.

“Coming in to the airport at Phnom Penh was very interesting to me,” said Griffith. “I tried to imagine in my mind, what it might have looked like when these were the “killing fields”: slave colonies where millions were worked to death or murdered during the reign of Pol Pot.

“It probably would look similar to Ireland when Cromwell went through the country and burnt it down, made ghost towns out of places. It’s a true learning experience.”

The previous day, Crow and Griffith had visited the Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as the Museum of Genocide, one of the chief tourist attractions in Cambodia. It is a nondescript building tucked in the middle of a respectable neighbourhood.

A former high school, it was taken over in 1975 by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a detention-and-torture centre known as Security Prison 21 or S21. For US$2, visitors can walk through the halls where 17,000 men and women were tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1976 and 1978, just a fraction of the estimated two million Cambodians killed during its reign.

Of the 17,000 Cambodians who were detained there, only seven were found alive when the city was liberated by the North Vietnamese in 1979.

The museum displays thousands of photos of men, women and children whose deaths were meticulously documented. These victims are not just statistics; they have faces, some terrified, some resigned, some defiant and, shockingly, some even smiling for their death photo. Each one was someone’s mother, father or child. One of the most unnverving displays at the museum is the map of Cambodia formed entirely of human skulls of Cambodians killed at S21. A veritable Wall of Death.

Apparently Crow and Griffith were so affected by the museum they decided to forgo a visit to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, a 20-minute drive on dirt roads from the city. Here, a glass tower houses 8,000 human skulls, half of the number executed and dumped into mass graves there. In the horizon are more fields filled with landmines embedded by the Khmer Rouge over the years. Only fools would tread there.

If Crow and Griffith had visited the field, they would surely have difficulty fitting this horrifying example of man’s worst inhumanity into their own privileged views. Hitler didn’t survive to answer for his atrocities and neither did Pol Pot.

The two musicians also expressed concern about the United States’ refusal to sign the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel mines - a treaty signed by more than 120 countries.

Yet today, the US government speaks of an international tribunal to bring surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justicce. It is the bitter, lost years of the past decade, when the world deliberatedly spurned its chance to help Cambodia recover as a nation, that continues to haunt both the country and the international community until today.

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The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek.

WHERE EVEN ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD [circa 2000]


- 110 million landmines lie in the ground on every continent. It will cost US$33 billion to remove only these mines (if no others are planted), which, under present de-mining rates will take 1,100 years to clear.

- There are 100 million landmines stockpiled around the world.

- 70 people are killed or injured every day by landmines. That’s one person every 15 minutes; 26,000 people per year.

- Over one million people have been killed or maimed by anti-personnel mines since 1975.

- 300,000 children are severely disabled because of mines.

- Half of all adults who stand on a mine die before they reach hospital. Children, because of their size, are more likely to die from their injuries.

- Most minefields are unmarked because the signs have disintegrated or been cut down for firewood over the years. Many anti-personnel mines are simply washed out of the ground and deposited elsewhere, ofther on previously cleared land.

- Mines are being laid 25 times faster than they are being cleared.

- Mines can ost as little as US$3 to make and over $1,000 to clear.

- For every one hour spent in sowing mines, over 100 hours are spent de-mining.

- De-mining is very dangerous. One accident occurs for every 1-2,000 mines removed.

- Victims need twice as many blood transfusions as people injured by bullets or fragments. Units of blood required is two to six times greater than that needed by other war casualties.

- Each prosthetic costs around US$3,000 per amputee in developing countries. For the 250,000 amputees registered worldwide, this means a total expenditure of US$750 million.

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WHERE $INGAPORE STANDS ON LANDMINES

According to the Landmine Monitor/One World Net International Country Report, $ingapore has not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Nor has it signed the Convention on Conventional Weapons and its Landmines Protocol. Click here for the latest report.

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THE LAST OF THE TRUE BELIEVERS

Philip Cheah reviews Nanci Griffith’s Heart In Mind [2004].

For an artist so late in her career, it is a remarkable achievement that Nanci Griffith is still capable of making important albums. While Hearts In Mind [New Door, 2004] is not a masterpiece as her last studio album, Clock Without Hands [2001], it is still formidable. It’s not an album that you can brush off easily. Even a generic song such as A Simple Life contains a strong lyric: “I don’t want your wars/to take my children.” While the current war on Iraq is now all about winning hearts and minds, Griffith is saying that the warmongers don’t have “hearts in mind.” In short, they don’t have concern and compassion in their minds.

In the notes to the album’s keynote song, Big Blue Ball Of War, a lament on how global conflict is today the norm, she says: “Okay boys, it’s been all about you, your wars, your power and your feuds since Abraham. It’s time to step aside and let the ladies clean this house and you take the garbage and leave it at the curb.”

Having a heart is what Griffith represents to many fans today and championing of non-violent causes such as her advocacy for a landmine-free world. Hearts In Mind is in fact a culmination of her visits to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Both Heart Of Indochine and Old Hanoi recall her memories of those trips. The former is one of the rare times that the Vietnam War is correctly referred to as the American War (after all, we now know who started it) by a US musician. Both songs are elegiac and nostalgic, sad and wistful for the lives and the time lost.

Griffith’s capacity for memory extends to her stepfather (Beautiful), the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Le Ann Etheridge’s Back When Ted Loved Sylvia) and the victims of 9/11 (Julie Gold’s Mountain Of Sorrow).

What’s truly amazing about her memory is her unerring ability to rediscover talent. She did that in her two volumes of Other Voices. On the bonus track here, she brings back Keith Carradine (remember his ’80s hit, I’m Easy?) in one of the most haunting songs, Our Very Own. It’s a song that looks at changes, and how sometimes those changes are not real changes: “Youth is but a breath in time/A cruise around the square/You swore you’d never be your folks/And suddenly you’re there.” It’s a song about lost idealism. It’s also perhaps Griffith’s wake-up call to the world.

Click here to order Nanci Griffith releases.

Click here to order Sheryl Crow releases.

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  1. One Response to “MEKONG DELTA BLUES”

  2. Thank you for republishing this old article about Nanci and Sheryl’s involvement with the Ban The Landmine Movement. As a veteran I was aware of the Movement butnof their involvement.

    By BD on Aug 20, 2021

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