The Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval rehearsingJulia Wolfe's Steel Hammer in Gainesville, Florida.
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 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. The Bang on a Can All-Stars add a chorus of instruments including mountain dulcimers, wooden bones, banjo, and body percussion and join forces with the pure voices of the Norwegian vocal group Trio Mediaeval.