November 21 2009
Bang On A Can
New York CitySteel Hammer
is inspired by composer Julia Wolfe’s love for the legends and music of Appalachia. Culling from both the music and oral traditions of the region, the piece focuses on the legend of John Henry, immortalized for his race against 'the machine'. With over 200 versions and myriad of differing details, the tale has been embraced by a wide variety of American communities in the cause and glorification of the Worker.
Employing the rich instrumental colors of Appalachia, the Bang on a Can All-Stars
add a chorus of instruments including mountain dulcimers, wooden bones, banjo, steel hammers, and more. Trio Mediæval
, with their pure and direct sound, will tell the timeless tale. The result is a fusion of musical worlds that meld to create a new genre of art balladry.
Composer's Note: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-verses-machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear; some say John Henry is from West Virginia, others say he’s from South Carolina, still others say he’s from New Jersey. But these ambiguities aside, Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the Industrial Age as his superhuman 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—to tell the story of the story, and 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 the mountain dulcimer.) I have referenced the folk influence in many of my other works, such as Four Marys
(for string quartet) and Cruel Sister
(for string orchestra), which are inspired by folktales, and LAD
(for nine bagpipes) and Accordion Love
(an accordion concerto), which explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I call on the Bang on a Can All-Stars
to expand their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and access Trio Mediæval
’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.
I. Some Say
II. The States
VI. Polly Ann
VII. The Race
IX. Lord Lord