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 saw—arresting 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 else—a 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 narrative—a story with a beginning middle and end that wasn't necessarily true—would have felt cheap."