As Hiss Golden Messenger, Michael Taylor leans heavily on American music traditions, but bends them according to his own style.
When Michael Taylor of Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger first released Bad Debt in 2010, the soft-spoken, intimate record did not reach a large audience. With most of the record’s supply burned in a warehouse fire during the London riots of 2010, the “lost” LP created a mysterious smoke around the origins of Taylor’s experimental folk project.
But as Hiss Golden Messenger gained more recognition with Poor Moon in 2011 and Haw in 2013, the mysterious Bad Debt recordings could no longer remain hidden. In January, Taylor reissued the record with the help of local label Paradise of Bachelors.
As the story goes, Taylor recorded Bad Debt during the early hours of a North Carolina winter on a portable recorder in his kitchen, keeping the house still with a strumming serenity while his newborn slept in a nearby room. Such an origin tale fits perfectly as the birth to what Hiss Golden Messenger has come to be, a music rooted in personal storytelling and religious folklore.
But Taylor said he does not try to ground his music in past traditions of what folklore is “supposed” to be. Instead, he sees folk as a culture that is continually evolving.
“Many people who do folklore work are trying to convey the last existing whatever-it-is. The last existing storyteller before the person dies and the tradition is lost. I don’t think that way about folklore,” he said.
“I think that stuff carries on in ways that we may not recognize at first glance, so our job as
folklorists is to understand what the heart of the traditions or vernacular expressions are.”
Hiss Golden Messenger is not a simple replication of the roots influences it draws from. Instead, it is a sublimation of folk tradition by blending the past’s reverence with the present’s innovation. Taylor absorbs traditions of gospel music and folklore and melts them into his own style of creative storytelling.
This trait was one of the reasons Brendan Greaves, co-owner of Paradise of Bachelors, chose to sign Taylor and issue Poor Moon in 2011 as one of the record label’s first official releases.
“He is working within a tradition but pushes those boundaries,” Greaves said.
“He’s making a very personal version of gospel music that doesn’t really have to do with traditional orthodoxy. He touches on Scripture and personal interpretations, but what’s curious is how it manipulates the sounds of classic gospel music.”
Before Hiss Golden Messenger and Paradise of Bachelors existed, Taylor and Greaves met each other through the folklore graduate program at UNC. Taylor graduated from the program with a master’s degree in 2009, which led him to work as a contract folklorist for the state.
Taylor would travel to eastern North Carolina to set up live field recordings of any kind of traditional music. Yet, as people welcomed him into their rural homes, he began to challenge what it really meant to be “traditional.”
“You can take traditional materials and make something genuine out of them, and if you say it is traditional, then it is traditional. And if you say something is important and personal, then it is,” Taylor said.
“It’s about understanding that a person doesn’t go into a community and explain to them what is traditional. Your job is to listen and whatever the definition is that they convey to you, those are the definitions you use in regards to that community.”
Not only is this redefinition of traditional folklore incorporated into the music of Hiss Golden Messenger, it also plays into Taylor’s academic life — he returned to UNC’s folklore department this fall to teach Introduction to Folklore.
When Kiever Hunter, a junior American Studies major, walked into the class on the first day, he was a little shocked to see Taylor at the front of the room.
Hunter was familiar with Taylor’s music after playing tracks like “Poor Moon”’s powerful “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” on his WXYC radio program. But he said he quickly overcame his fandom and cherished the class as a down-to-earth Taylor explained folklore “like a grandfather telling you a story.”
“We learned things like how does such storytelling shape our lives and color our world,” Hunter said.
“And now the more I analyze storytelling and the oral tradition, I have realized that it is everything. We are always learning through the narratives that are told to us.”
While folklore seems to be embedded deep inside Taylor’s life, he said he has a problem with the word itself. But Taylor said he also realizes these culturally constructed definitions are ultimately out of his control, and all he can do is create his own traditions and be proud of them.
“Just hearing the word folklore, you make up your mind before hearing anything about it. I’m honestly thinking that rebranding folklore is long overdue,” he said.
“But who am I to decide?”
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