Steel Hammer is staged at BAM by Anne Bogart, with SITI Company and the Bang on a Can All-Stars

watch excerpt of Steel Hammer staged

From December 2 through 6, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents the staged incarnation of Steel Hammer, directed by Anne Bogart with music and lyrics by Julia Wolfe. The work creatively explores the subject of human vs. machine and the cost of hard labor on the human body and soul by distilling the discrepancies of over 200 variants of the classic ballad and legend of John Henry into a theatrical post-minimalist mountain-music hybrid. Playwrights Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor provide additional texts for the SITI Company, as three singers (Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn) and the Bang on a Can All-Stars fortify their amplified edge with banjo, bones, mountain dulcimer, and Appalachian clogging.

Characteristics — Steel Hammer: 

Julia Wolfe talks about her inspiration for the music:

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.