What's in a song? For the Durham Carolers, a black a cappella group that's been performing for more than 60 years, it's a lot more than the lyrics, the harmony and the melody. Like any group with a repertoire and a style that has remained consistent for so long, their songs are laced with history and tradition—they point to memories of days and years passed. But whether or not those memories are fond depends, to a large extent, on if you are entertaining or being entertained. As has been the case for years, the divide between the Carolers and their audience is often along racial lines.
Consider the sentiment around Oscar Hammerstein's "Ol' Man River," a show tune from the 1927 Broadway musical, Show Boat. The song is a world-weary slave's lament (most famously brought to life by Paul Robeson). Hammerstein's rendering of slave vernacular colors the lyrics: Ah gits weary/ An' sick of tryin'/ Ah'm tired of livin'/ An' skeered of dyin'. And: Let me go 'way from de white man boss/ Show me dat stream called de river Jordan/ Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross.
Some white folks still request the song—usually those who are older and have heard it performed year after year. Complying with those requests is a point of contention among members of the group.
"I wish that was one song that we would take out of our repertoire," says Ervin Worthy, the group's bass singer. "I feel like sometimes they look at me as a black face." Member Andre Montgomery agrees. "It seems like out of all the songs, they wait for that one song."
When those requests are made, Richard Butler, the group's de facto leader, sings the song as a solo. For him, the art of performance trumps any racial or social implications. "I don't have any problem doing it because we know who we are," he says. But it's hard not to feel that the song and its performance are throwbacks to a time when black performers had less of a choice about what songs to sing.
And the question remains: Why do white folks still request the song?
Jim Davis, host of WNCU's 8-Track Flashback, says that tastes in music aren't necessarily political. "For the most part, the black community is constantly reinventing itself in terms of music, but there are segments of the white community that latch on to a particular kind of music and they stay stuck there," he says. "It sounds pejorative, but it's not."
It's not surprising that anyone would latch on to the Durham Carolers. Their voices are beautiful; their performances warm and intimate. Family, friends and the spirit of the season accompany their presence. Compound that year after year, and you have an institution. Does it matter what lies beneath the layers at its core?