Hiss Golden Messenger + William Gedney
Heart Like a Levee

Hiss Golden Messenger & William Gedney

Heart Like a Levee


Hiss Golden Messenger is the indie folk project of Durham-based musical omnivore M.C. Taylor. “At once firmly steeped in tradition and immediately accessible” (NPR), Hiss Golden Messenger calls up a wide spectrum of American vernacular music, from Archie Brownlee to the Staple Singers, from Van Morrison to Townes Van Zandt. At Reynolds Industries Theater on November 13 and 14, 2015, Duke Performances presented Heart Like a Levee, the world premiere of a specially commissioned song cycle by Taylor, performed by an ace ensemble. The project later became a recorded album, Heart Like a Levee, released by Hiss Golden Messenger on Merge Records to critical acclaim. 

Heart Like a Levee is an installment in Duke Performances’ From the Archives initiative, which pairs artists with archival resources from Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library to develop bold and ambitious new work.

In this case, Taylor’s cycle draws upon a group of photographs from 1972 by documentarian William Gedney (1932-1989), known for his uncanny ability to “catch fleeting moments of grace, joy, melancholy, and humor” (The New York Times).

Gedney’s visit to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky generated the moving portfolio of photographs of everyday life that provides the source material for this collection of songs. Working alongside OBIE-winning stage director and designer Jim Findlay, Taylor offers a set of songs that address family, work, home, and love, as inspired by the photos’ subjects. The premiere of Heart Like a Levee was preceded by a public conversation between Taylor, Findlay, and photographer and William Gedney scholar Margaret Sartor, moderated by director of Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Art Tom Rankin, that explored Gedney’s influence and Taylor and Findlay’s collaboration.

“They are photographs of real people, and this is a song about real people. ‘Heart Like a Levee’ is a fitting counterpart.”

The Atlantic

Photos by Andy Tennille


Phil Cook, Megafaun
Brad Cook, Megafaun
Ryan Gustafson
Matt McCaughan, Bon Iver
Mike Lewis, Bon Iver
Mark Paulson, Bowerbirds
Mike Wiley, actor & playwright
Tift Merritt, special guest

Made possible, in part, with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and support from the Archive of Documentary Arts at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University.


  • Rolling Stone, Hear Hiss Golden Messenger’s Album ‘Heart Like a Levee’
  • The Atlantic, Track of the Day: ‘Heart like a Levee’ by Hiss Golden Messenger
  • INDY Week, Live: Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee paints a warm Southern setting
  • INDY Week, The photographic inspiration for Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album and stage show, Heart Like a Levee
  • Pitchfork, Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee