John Henry at Mass MoCA
A while back I read the 2001 Colson Whitehead novel “John Henry Days,” which explores the legend of John Henry through a contemporary lens. An American folk hero, John Henry worked as a steel driver, hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives. He was big and strong, and his physical prowess was measured by pitting him in a race against a steam-powered hammered; John Henry won, but died with the hammer in his hand. In his book, Whitehead tells the story of a cynical freelance journalist who travels to West Virginia to cover the launch of a new John Henry postage stamp at a John Henry-themed festival.
The story of John Henry has been explored many times in music, literature and arts. One of the newest takes on the story is “Steel Hammer,” a 2009 musical composition based on over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad, which has been recorded by musical luminaries such as Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. Last weekend I traveled to Mass MoCA, the contemporary art museum in the Berkshires, to hear the cutting-edge, genre hopping classical music group the Bang On a Can All-Stars perform “Steel Hammer” using instruments such as dulcimer, banjo, piano, cello and drums. And, of course, voice.
I’ve only seen a few Bang On a Can productions, but in my experience they never disappoint. The music always manages to be innovative, strange and beautiful, and “Steel Hammer” embodied all of these qualities. The music was clearly inspired by Appalachian folk music, but contained many modern touches. It was noisier and more unruly than traditional music; it invoked the industrial hum of machinery, trains and hard, backbreaking labor, while also painting a sweeping American portrait similar in spirit to the works of Gershwin. Most interesting of all was “Steel Hammer’s” embrace of the contradictions of the John Henry legend — in the piece “Characteristics,” the singers describe John Henry as small, tall, black, white, true and false.
Much as I enjoyed watching the Bang on a Can All-Star’s performance of “Steel Hammer,” I occasionally found myself shutting my eyes and just letting the music sweep over me. “Steel Hammer” is immersive, even transcendent, and if you ever have the chance to hear it live, you should make an effort to do so.
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