The folk tale of John Henry, the man who bested a steam hammer with his human strength and then died, is resonant in the telling but thin when placed on the page. The text for Julia Wolfe’s “Steel Hammer,” her new piece based on the legend and performed at Zankel Hall on Saturday, looks wan and fragmented on the page. For most Americans, though, John Henry is not a story so much as a folk song, one they probably sang in music class in school as children (I sang it in my public school music class, sometime around the third grade). Taking the story and setting it to the graceful, mournful melody makes it into something more powerful and enduring, part of the shared, imagined history of American culture. Just as singing the song puts it into the body, so the body shares the experience of singing something part of the material of culture. The myth becomes part of body memory.
We may not have sung the exact same song, though, since it exists in many versions, delineated by variations in the details: where was John Henry from and where was he working, how tall was he, how old was he? While the real point is the story of man against machine, man against Industrialism, these details laid out on the page give Wolfe a set of lyrical fragments – variations – to work with. Still, on the page there’s not much to tell. But that’s why we sing.
“Steel Hammer” is composed for the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval and the Bang On A Can All-Stars, and in performance it is fascinating and lovely. This is a finely written work with good music in every detail and an overall shape that expresses the elegiac sense of the folk song and a sublime effect of creating a new element in the great American Oversoul. Wolfe slices the stories into components and puts them back together into lines that alternate across them: “John Henry was a little boy sitting on his papa’s knee/John Henry was a little man sitting on his mama’s knee,” or “He was true/He was false/He was six feet tall/He was five foot one/He was tall/He was small.” Put these lines into a consistent melody and harmony and you have something that works together with coherence and focus.
The musicians appeared on a stage dressed with strands of bare light bulbs, as if they were in someone’s backyard, and there were two screens for project animated images (hammer striking rocks, a train, a figure in overalls walking away from us into myth) and text. These were effective and colorful enhancements to the entrancing music. The performances were splendid, with as much skill, control and focus as the composer put into her work. I have never heard the All-Stars play better, on record or in performance. Even the trickiest passages seemed natural and easy. The amplification in Zankel was problematic at times, with the clarinet and piano frequently buried in the mix, but the voices of Trio Mediaeval sang clear and assured in parts far more rhythmically challenging than their usual repertory. The vocal writing is the centerpiece of the work, not only presenting the text and the most important melodies, as expected, but also most of the harmonic material as well. With three voices, the chords are lean, appropriate to the folk aesthetic Wolfe is working with, and there is a surprising sensation of hearing contemporary music which is also old. This is the Arvo Part quality, and it’s not deliberate (I don’t think) but an inevitable and interesting result of using three, pure-toned voices set in simple major and minor triads, and then adding in a modern sense of harmonic motion and dissonance – like Part, Wolfe’s voice leading leans hard and long on suspended notes before the final satisfying resolution, the aural equivalent of the pleasure of pressing a loose tooth into the gum before letting it go.
The voices begin with music as fragmented and repetitive as the text, before the ensemble comes in with the beat and color of percussion, clarinet and banjo. The rhythm and pulse is very much one from old-time rural American music, but this is truly composed, modern music, and the phrases are parts of a greater whole. The music keeps building itself out of fragments then cutting itself back into fragments, building and rebuilding the myth of John Henry. Wolf even uses the musicians bodies as percussion instruments – with clapping and slapping – and some wonderful foot-stomping rhythm from guitarist Mark Stewart. It’s all fully incorporated into her overall idea for the music, for her own story telling.
Structurally, there is a sectional sense of buildup; an introduction, the states John Henry hailed from, different versions of his destiny, the mountain and him. The music, especially the voices, keeps tossing in different ideas into the overall stream, and then in the ‘Polly Ann’ section everything comes together with drama and force. The short vocal phrases become long, lovely melody and the effect is spine-tingling. This is the meat of the piece, where the fundamental nature of this work is revealed. It’s something unique, a long form folk song made from scratch. Composers have been working with, and reworking, folk music for centuries, but what Wolfe is doing here is producing something new that has enough identifiable colors and techniques to anchor the experience of the listener into the greater realm of American singing and storytelling. This is resolute, serious contemporary music and her incorporation of folk sounds and rhythms is complete – she’s not pasting in other musics but developing her own. She also is telling her own story about John Henry in a way that is post-modern and completely coherent, with a great deal of emotional resonance. She’s making a new/old myth.
Once the many figures of John Henry are fully cut, the story comes to its familiar climax. Under punchy, herky-jerky rhythms, her only concession to the familiar BOAC style, the voices drive the hammer home, until John Henry, having bested the steam engine, lays down his hammer and dies. With classic and essential American understatement, the voices sing “Lord Lord/This old hammer rings like silver/This old hammer shines like gold.” No melisma, no underlining, no hectoring an obvious point. Sublimely satisfying and moving, this may be Julia Wolfe’s masterpiece and an important work of contemporary American music.