Inspired by her love for the music and lore of Appalachia, Wolfe based her text for Steel Hammer on over 200 versions of the American legend “John Henry”, which has been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen. A runner-up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, Steel Hammerfeatures the alternately haunting and playful vocalizations of Norway’s renowned Trio Mediaeval, and stretches the standard instrumentation of the Bang on a Can All-Stars with wooden bones, mountain dulcimer, banjo, clapping, clogging and much more.
Steel Hammer is a return to my musical roots in folk music When I wrote the piece, I looked to the breadth of musicianship in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Trio Mediaeval was also a key inspiration, because they bring a beautiful pure sound and a real depth of emotion to the work. And last but not least, I was moved by the myriad songsters, some known, some not-so-known, who filled my ears with their own personal versions of the John Henry ballad.
The text is culled from the over 200 versions of John Henry. 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 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.
Steel Hammer premiered in November 2009 at the University of Florida, and eventually made its way to Carnegie’s Zankel Hall for its New York debut. Writing for the New Yorker, Alex Ross referred to the work as “…a musical archaeology of a familiar tale — one that preserves, even enlarges, its central mystery.”
This past March, the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky premiered an exciting new evening-length theater production of Steel Hammer pairing the Bang on a Can All-Stars with acclaimed director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company. Through Wolfe’s engaging music and texts from four playwrights the legend is woven together to explore the human impulse to tell stories through the rich tales surrounding this American folk hero