Steel Hammer

Julia Wolfe / Bang on a Can All-Stars / 3 Female Voices

“[An] epic explosion and reconstruction of the folk ballad.” 
– The Boston Globe

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 he 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.

Wolfe 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. The Bang on a Can All-Stars add a slew of instruments to their usual line up – mountain dulcimer, wooden bones, banjo, harmonicas, and body percussion, as well as a dynamic trio of three female voices, to tell the tale.

Steel Hammer is a concert work with a continuing evolutionary journey over many years. Originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the work premiered on tour in the US in the fall of 2009 featuring Bang on a Can All-Stars and Norway’s renowned Trio Mediaeval. It was a runner-up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and was recorded and released on Cantaloupe Music in 2015. In 2015, Wolfe teamed up with acclaimed American director Anne Bogart for a dramatized stage production incorporating Wolfe’s complete musical work Steel Hammer and text from four remarkable American playwrights – Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor. Directed by Anne Bogart, the fully staged production featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars alongside the celebrated actors of SITI Company and was developed and premiered at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was commissioned by the Krannert Center and by BAM for the 2015 Next Wave Festival. In 2021, Bang on a Can co-produced a film version with Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley and film-maker Jeremy Robins, adding the superb musicianship and distinctly American vocal sound of singers Rebecca L. Hargrove, Sonya Headlam, and Molly Netter. These three singers will continue to appear live in concert with the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

View a trailer for the 2021 Steel Hammer film.

Steel Hammer was commissioned by Bang on a Can with generous support from Maria and Robert A. Skirnick and Carnegie Hall.


The John Henry Who Might Have Been (NY Times review of Steel Hammer)


Steel Hammer is available on Cantaloupe Music, and can be streamed here.

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