by Jill Kimball
Almost everyone has heard some version of a song about the man called John Henry. Legend has it that John Henry was a steel driver–someone who drilled holes into rock so that explosives could blast entire mountainsides and make way for tunnels and railroads. One day, he tried to keep up with a machine and succeeded, only to die of stress-induced heart failure on the spot.
The character is fictional, but he represented the hordes of exploited laborers who built miles of American railroad in the late 19th century in harsh conditions for next to no pay. To this day, he is a symbol of unfair labor practices, of human strength, and of the skilled worker’s ongoing struggle to find work in an age of machines.
The folk song “John Henry” is well-known across so many genres. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to Aaron Copland to They Might Be Giants has recorded, arranged or referenced it. Rather than being deterred by its ubiquity, though, the composer Julia Wolfe was inspired by it. Believe it or not, she waded through every version of “John Henry” she could find, noted all the lyric differences–since it’s an old folk tale, there are many–and wrote her own tribute in an album called Steel Hammer.
Musically, there’s a lot going on in this album. Norway’s vocal Trio Mediaeval provides strange, haunting and ethereal vocals throughout, accompanied by vastly different groups of instruments on each track. But the concept is simple: it’s an amalgamation of every John Henry story ever told, the details of which are often contradictory.
The album begins with mysterious, minimalistic vocals that reminded me a lot of fellow Bang on A Can composer David Lang. Then, a few effects are layered over the voices as they mimic the sound of a train whistle amid what sounds like a steel hammer driving into rock and the constant chug-a-chug of a steam engine.
According to legend, John Henry worked on a railroad in West Virginia. Or perhaps it was Kentucky. Or was it Columbus, Ohio? All of John Henry’s supposed locations are listed off in the folky, meandering second track, “The States,” which is pleasantly dissonant in all the right places. I especially like the introduction of driving percussion later in the track.
Two other tracks, “Characteristics” and “Polly Ann – The Race,” poke fun at the inconsistencies between John Henry stories. Some say he was tall; others say he was small. While some versions call his lover Polly Ann, others call her Mary Ann.
In “Destiny,” we learn that John Henry sealed his fate when he discovered his strength. “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me,” the vocal trio repeats as a piano and a cello play frenetic dissonant patterns and grow ever louder. The whole track ends loudly and abruptly, creating a frightening cliffhanger. We’re on the edge of our seats even though we all know the story’s tragic end.
“Mountain” paints a musical picture of the setting around which John Henry worked. At first it’s contemplative and tonal, but it grows increasingly dissonant as the steel driver’s death sinks in.
The two last movements, “Winner” and “Lord, Lord”, are like the modern answer to a Requiem mass, a seven-minute opportunity to come to grips with John Henry’s death, to grieve, and finally to hope that he is at peace now.
There’s a reason why this album was the runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a triumph: beautiful but challenging, modern but accessible, at once relaxed and disquieting. I highly recommend you check it out! It’s available now on Cantaloupe Music‘s website.