‘More than a concert’: Hiss Golden Messenger tour assists Durham schools and teachers

Hiss Golden Messenger supports NC schools with ‘I Need a Teacher’ video

Hiss Golden Messenger's “I Need a Teacher” features educators, staff and families from this year’s North Carolina teacher march. Founder M.C. Taylor, a Durham resident, is donating concert ticket proceeds to the Durham Public Schools Foundation.
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Hiss Golden Messenger's “I Need a Teacher” features educators, staff and families from this year’s North Carolina teacher march. Founder M.C. Taylor, a Durham resident, is donating concert ticket proceeds to the Durham Public Schools Foundation.

Anything can turn into a routine, given enough time. Even traveling the continent to play your music for fans in dozens of cities.

M.C. Taylor knows that life well. He started the band Hiss Golden Messenger, a folk project that originally included his longtime band mate Scott Hirsch, when he moved to Durham in 2007. Before the move, he played in earlier bands Ex-Ignota and the Court & Spark in California.

After years on the road, Taylor, 43, has decided to use his time on stage to give back to an institution he loves: Durham Public Schools.

“We were just thinking, ‘What can we do that is above and beyond just us getting up on a stage and playing our music for people who came to see us?’” Taylor told The News & Observer. “If you do that for enough years and you have a certain type of disposition, it starts to feel like there needs to be something else there. At least that’s how I felt.”

M. C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger is touring to promote his new album and support the Durham Public Schools Foundation. Graham Tolbert Courtesty of Graham Tolbert

Taylor will soon be touring across the country to support his upcoming album, “Terms of Surrender,” and will donate $1 from every ticket to the Durham Public Schools Foundation. While he has several performances on his schedule, the benefit tour will kick off Sept. 24 in Greenville, S.C., continuing through about 30 cities through November.

The foundation recently gave $55,000 to 19 projects proposed by students, teachers and parents, many of which took on issues like equity and discipline practices.

Taylor said he feels lucky his two children attend a public magnet school in Durham.

“The educational component is one part of it,” he said. “The social component is another. It’s an incredibly diverse school. So they’re in classrooms all day long with kids who don’t look like them, and I need that in our [kids’] lives. Frankly, I think we all need that.”

Taylor’s parents were public school teachers, his wife teaches in Durham, and his sister is a public school counselor.

He has written songs to benefit causes in the past. He donated the proceeds from his 2018 song “Passing Clouds,” which was recorded a week before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit.

But this is his first time using a full tour to raise money for a cause.

Both of the singles from the new album, “I Need a Teacher” and “Cat’s Eye Blue,” explore the space between despair and action.

Another year older

Debt slightly deeper

Paycheck smaller

Taylor said he’s looking for ways to move forward in what feels like a “broken American moment.”

“Over time, I feel like I’ve been more outspoken about [public schools] because I love the education my kids are getting, and I see how hard the educators and staff are working these days under pretty soul-crushing odds,” he said.

“I feel like I can be a model in some small way of standing up and saying, ‘This thing that exists in our own backyard and which many of us take for granted? We can make it better, but we all have to buy into how great it could be.’”

The new video for “I Need a Teacher” features educators, staff and families from May’s teacher march in downtown Raleigh. Taylor said the solidarity he sees among educators and public school employees is amazing.

“I don’t think that people totally realize that there are all kinds of ways to help,” Taylor said. “Of course giving money is one way, volunteering is another. Buying into the idea that public education is important and can provide a great education is something that people need to do. If they truly value public education, they need to internalize it and make it real.”

Taylor volunteers with his kids’ school when he’s home, but he didn’t want months of touring to be an excuse to be disengaged.

“When I’m gone, this is some small way to maybe move the needle a little bit,” he said. “Or at the very least to have a voice that is not part of the Durham Public Schools world out there saying, ‘I love you guys, and I support you,’ and waving the flag for public education.”

What’s next

“Terms of Surrender” will come out on Sept. 20, but the first two singles are available now. The tour, which is set to last from July to November, will take the band across the United States and Canada.

Hiss Golden Messenger will also play tonight, July 24, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham for the opening night of MRG30, a festival celebrating the 30th anniversary of Hiss Golden Messenger’s label, Merge Records.

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.