Julia Wolfe’s masterful meditation on the legend of John Henry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and it’s not hard to see why. Written for the Bang On A Can All-Stars (Wolfe is a co-founder of Bang On A Can) and the incomparable Norwegian vocal group Trio Mediaeval, Steel Hammer draws on the widely divergent, often contradictory variants of the 19th-century American tale of the steel-drivin’ man who stood up to the forces of industrialization and, in many versions, died in the process of outperforming his mechanical rival. The score does not have an obvious folk-music sound; it is clearly within the post-minimalist, post-modern aesthetic Bang On A Can has been associated with. Which is to say, it’s rhythmically charged and full of surprising tone colors (like the soft huffing and chugging sounds that suggest a steam engine in the latter half of “Some Say,” and the clang of metal that evokes John Henry’s hammer at the end of that movement). Instruments like the banjo and mountain dulcimer are used in and among the electric guitar, bass, drums, cello, keyboards and reeds, but they become part of Wolfe’s ingenious conflation of man and machine in this propulsive work.
Steel Hammer does not tell, or retell, the story of John Henry. It revels in the fact that there is no one story: The texts consist largely of lists of the characteristics of the man (who was white — or possibly black; he was definitely tall — unless he was small), and the music too revels in contradictions. When John Henry’s name is finally mentioned for the first time, at the beginning of “Destiny,” almost 20 minutes into the piece, there is a sly hint at a familiar “John Henry” folk melody, but this quickly proves to be illusory. The dulcimer and bones of “Mountain” suggest Appalachia, but the relentless forward motion is pure Downtown Manhattan. Only in “Polly Ann” does something approaching Americana peek through, in the directness of the melody and the clarity of the instrumental texture.
Trio Mediaeval, as usual, sounds utterly fantastic, and the piece builds momentum as it goes, starting with the Trio singing their tricky, exposed parts a cappella and climaxing in the actual race, which appears as the second half of the “Polly Ann” track, and in the bittersweet finale, “Lord Lord.” For those looking for just a taste before diving into the full work, try the latter track, or “Mountain” or “Characteristics.”