Steel Hammer is inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia. The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, explore the subject of human vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear – some say he’s from West Virginia – some say he’s from South Carolina – some say he’s from New Jersey... But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his super human strength is challenged in a contest to out dig an engine. I drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s in to a new whole - at times meditating on single words or phrases – in order to tell the story of the story - to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled.
The sounds of Appalachia have long been a part of my musical consciousness. (My first public music performance was on mountain dulcimer). I have referenced the folk music influence in many of my other works - Four Marys (for string quartet) and Cruel Sister (for string orchestra) take folk tales as the inspiration for the music. LAD (for 9 bagpipes), and Accordion Love (accordion concerto) explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I’m calling on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to expand out from their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and accessing Trio Mediæval’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.