On July 27, the Massachussetts Museum of Contemporary Art and Bang on a Can present Julia Wolfe’s mesmerizing evening-length art ballad Steel Hammer as part of the Bang on a Can Summer Festival.
The work is inspired by her love for the legends and music of Appalachia, and culls from both the music and oral traditions of the region. The text is taken from over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad – based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales – and explores the subject of human vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Steel Hammer stretches the standard instrumentation of Bang on a Can All-Stars with wooden bones, mountain dulcimer, banjo, and more, to evoke the rich instrumental colors of Appalachia. The New York Times calls it a “wild hybrid” and an “obsessive study of the song’s many versions.”
Steel Hammer was inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia. The text was 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 the 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 into 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 Bang on a Can All-Stars add a chorus of instruments including mountain dulcimer, wooden bones, banjo, harmonica, and body percussion.