Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer

Thursday, March 3, 20227:30pm

New York, NY

Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer is a moving retelling of “John Henry,” a classic American ballad of man versus machine.

Performed by:

Bang on a Can All-Stars
Robert Black, bass
Vicky Chow, piano and melodica
David Cossin, percussion
Arlen Hlusko, cello
Mark Stewart, electric guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, harmonica
Ken Thomson, clarinets and harmonica


Rebecca L. Hargrove, voice
Sonya Headlam, voice
Molly Netter, voice

Julia Wolfe says:

“Steel Hammer is a meditation on over 200 versions of the “John Henry” ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, reveal both the evolution of the story, as well as the timeless tale of human versus machine. Many of the facts are unclear: some say that Henry was from West Virginia; some say he was from South Carolina. Some have said that his fate was set before he picked up a hammer, that his woman’s name was Liza Jane or Polly Ann—that Polly drove steel just like a man. But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faced 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” and to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled. To tell the tale, the Bang on a Can All-Stars have added a slew of instruments—mountain dulcimer, wooden bones, banjo, harmonicas, and body percussion—to their usual line up, as well as a dynamic trio of three female voices.”