Hiss Golden Messenger’s
Heart Like a Levee
Friday, Nov. 13–Saturday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
Reynolds Industries Theater
125 Science Drive, Durham

Michael Taylor didn’t like what he saw.

A year ago, Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald contacted Taylor, the anchor of Durham folk-rock project Hiss Golden Messenger, to commission a conceptual concert based on the work of William Gedney, a New York-born documentary photographer and teacher who died of AIDS in 1989. Specifically, Greenwald offered images of Gedney’s two visits to the Blue Diamond mining camp in eastern Kentucky. Taylor’s reaction to the first series he sawarresting 1964 images with blunt titles like “Man cleaning rifle with boy looking on” and “Boy covered by dirt smoking cigarette with one hand, holding can of tobacco in other”was not promising.

“The photos from the first visit have a kind of a Works Progress Administration vibe that is compositionally beautiful, but I’m not really attracted to,” explains Taylor, sitting close at a small table in a downtown Durham coffee shop. He is focused and open and direct, not preoccupied in the least.

“I have a hard time with photographs in black-and-white of the South, of people with dirty faces,” he continues. “It’s a little sensational.”

But when Taylor looked through Gedney’s 1972 set, he saw something elsea shift in tone, a hint of subtlety, a sense of mystery. Gedney’s subjects are often in relative repose on porches or standing around in small groups.

Still, they conveyed that a lot was happening around them. Taylor found connection within those frames. One in particular stirred him: a young teen, shirtless and slight, stands with a wary but mysterious expression as behind him his father seems to float like a ghost or a memory.

In 2009, Taylor became a father, as he and his wife, Abby, had their first son, Elijah. The experience has since reverberated throughout his work. The couple had their second child, Ione, in 2013. As Taylor lived with Gedney’s pictures, the ones he found most striking were often of children. Fatherhood gave him a link to the work.

“The looks on these kids’ faces tell you that they know about things that I’ve been trying to hide my kids from,” Taylor admits. “There’s something about kids having to learn things that seem too hard for kids to know about. That kind of emotion really draws me to the pictures and connects me to the people in those photographs in a way that feels genuine. When I realized that the songs could be about me as well as about the photos, that was my way into them.”

So Taylor signed on, imagining that he would develop the Duke project alongside his other main task at the moment: writing songs for a new Hiss Golden Messenger record, the follow-up to his 2014 Merge debut, Lateness of Dancers. Maybe they would commingle a little bit. But Heart Like a Levee, which premieres at Duke’s Reynolds Theater on Friday night, is not a side project. It is the name of the concert and of the next Hiss Golden Messenger record itself.

Taylor didn’t take a dutiful approach to Heart Like a Levee, but he did his due diligence. He consulted with Margaret Sartor, Duke’s resident Gedney expert, and he and Duke drama department employee Jim Findlay combed through Duke’s 5,000-item trove of materials related to Gedney, who also photographed hippies in San Francisco, gay rallies in New York, and striking series in Europe and India.

As Taylor wrestled with how to do justice to Gedney’s work lyrically, he dispensed with certain well-trod approaches to such assignments. He resisted, for instance, the idea of researching the people in the photographs or speculating on what their lives were like, a decision based not on laziness but on Taylor’s determination to keep up the creative roll he’s been on since 2010’s Bad Debt. The project became too personal to be annexed.

“I thought, if I met Gedney, what would he suggest I do? I think he’d say, ‘Write a bunch of music that means a lot to you. Don’t write just to write it. Write it because you have to write it,’” Taylor says. “I wanted to make the best record that I’ve made.”

Duke’s “From the Archives” series pairs musicians and composers with photographs and other archival materials housed in Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, aiming to foster the creation of bold new work from aging sources. Previous iterations have seen Bill Frisell write a score to accompany photographs by rural Arkansas photographer Mike Disfarmer, and, last year, Nashville guitarist William Tyler staging a multimedia production with images from Duke’s rich Civil War collection.

A thoughtful instrumental score keyed to photographs from a bygone era is almost a can’t-lose proposition; as the first singer-songwriter in the series, Taylor faced the additional challenge of having to write lyrics for the source material. Coming up with words commensurate with the gravitas of those images could give even a seasoned songwriter pause. But Taylor decided not to take a detour into film music. The songs he would write for this endeavor had to stand on their own. They had to move people without the aid of evocative photographs.

Keeping a few of the 1972 set of photographs on his writing wall, Taylor felt a deepening connection with Gedney.

“By all accounts, Gedney was a soft-spoken guy, so he must have projected a very positive and powerful energy,” says Taylor. “His empathy allowed him to connect with this family on a really base emotional level. There was no trickery involved. They knew this person is not here to hurt us or to exploit us.”

Likewise, Taylor didn’t want to compose narrative tunes about the family that appears in the photographs, or hypothesize on what Gedney’s subjects might have been experiencing. That felt exploitative, and Taylor’s not a narrative songwriter, anyway. His songs are impressionistic and personal.

“Some people do that kind of work really well,” he says. “Maybe there will come a time when I want to work that way, but his photographs seemed so real to me that to write a narrativea story with a beginning middle and end that wasn’t necessarily truewould have felt cheap.”


Two weeks before the Duke premiere, Taylor sits at a computer console inside a shed converted into a recording studio in suburban Raleigh. Brad Cook, his friend, manager, bandmate and musical sounding board, is there, too, as well as the studio’s owner, saxophonist Matt Douglas. They are trying to put the finishing touches on a song called “Highland Grace.” It’s the last song on the record and the concluding number of the stage show, too.

Together they tease out the permutations of Douglas’ six-beat sax phrase, suggestive of New Orleans humidity by way of Dylan’s New Morning. They try it with a tenor sax, with an alto sax and finally with a “a big old jazz horn.” Douglas plays it in unison with a pre-recorded horn line, then only with discrete parts of that line and then with certain harmonic variations. The familiarity and ease of the environment suggest more support-group than boys’ club.

“I thought it sounded really good,” says Taylor, removing his headphones and swiveling around. “Did it feel good to you?”

“It did, it did,” says Cook. “If I was going to be really critical, I would say it’s the second-to-last note that feels too straight. There should be a little pause there. It’ll swing a little harder.”

A day earlier, Taylor expressed relief that “the heavy existential lifting has been done,” meaning the songs for the new LP had been written and recorded and only overdubs remained. The deadline of the stage show helped.

Still, the dogged way the three work and rework this one part seems to suggest that there’s still some lifting to be done, and that Taylor isn’t going to be satisfied when the curtain closes this weekend. He is out to finish the best record he’s ever made.

“Let’s run through it all again,” says Taylor, turning to his screen.

Cook puts his headphones back, and Douglas readies his lip.

The setup for the shows is simple: Backed by his sidemen of the last several yearsBrad and Phil Cook, drummer Matt McCaughan, guitarist Ryan Gustafson and Douglas, along with all-star guests like Tift Merritt, Mark Paulson and Mike LewisTaylor will perform the new song cycle while the images he and the director, Findlay, have selected appear on large displays.

Having been immersed in the project and the recording process for the past few months, Taylor and his bandmates know the music inside out. Yet some of the details of the staged performance he is content to leave to the wisdom of his collaborator as well as to chance.

“At some point I just stepped away and let Jim do his thing,” Taylor says of Findlay, who’s handling both stage direction and design. “I have some idea of what kind of stage we’re going to be stepping onto, but it’s going to be a huge surprise.”

After a year of work on something that became more than a side project, this time he expects to like what he sees.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Photographic memory”