Steel Hammer

“He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord. He laid down his hammer and he died.” I have had Pete Seeger’s voice singing his version of the folk song, John Henry, racing through my head like a runaway train ever since I left Steel Hammer — a collaboration between composer, Julia Wolfe, and SITI Company. Anne Bogart (of SITI Company) directed this exploration of the many — and contradictory — myths of railroad worker John Henry. I attended this performance last night as part of BAM’s exciting Next Wave Festival, which is coming to a close this month. I am a big fan of Bang on a Can All-Stars, the new music collective of which Julia Wolfe is cofounder and artistic director. I knew the music in Steel Hammer would be fantastic, and it was — both instrumentally and vocally. Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn got quite the vocal workout singing this challenging music. The result was mesmerizing. And speaking of music! Some of my family roots are in Appalachia, and I love the old folk songs of the region. I also love the new music genre. So it was pure pleasure hearing the new sounds of Julia Wolfe’s composition combined with harmonica, mountain dulcimer, body percussion, wooden bones, and banjo. SITI Company’s ensemble cast members were terrific actors and story-tellers (especially the powerful presence of Patrice Johnson Chevannes.) I enjoyed the rustic boot-stomping and body-slapping percussion music they made. I enjoyed moments of their choreography, but much of the time I felt the movement interludes were superfluous and distracted from the music. Was John Henry a real man? No one will ever know for sure — but if he was, Steel Hammer made him come alive once more.

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