Steel Hammer OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

Photo: Sara Krulwich
  • NY TIMES

  • Opening Night:
    December 2, 2015
    Closing:
    December 6, 2015

    Theater: BAM Harvey Theater / 651 Fulton Street, New York, NY,

    Synopsis: 

    Who was John Henry? According to Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen, he was a steel-driving railroad man who outperformed a steam drill before dying with his hammer in hand. But versions of the indelible American myth vary. In this staged incarnation of her work "Steel Hammer," 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe teams with director Anne Bogart and SITI Company to distill the discrepancies of over 200 variants of the classic ballad and legend into a theatrical post-minimalist mountain-music hybrid. Playwrights Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor provide additional texts as three singers and the Bang on a Can All-Stars—fortified with banjo, bones, mountain dulcimer, and other Appalachian instruments—give the folk hero a newfangled song for a new century.

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  • NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW OF Steel Hammer

    In ‘Steel Hammer,’ a Man and a Train in a Race and a Legend

    Charles Isherwood

    December 3, 2015: Julia Wolfe’s galvanizing score — alternately clamorous, haunting, exhilarating and sometimes all three simultaneously — provides a sturdy musical spine for “Steel Hammer,” a theatrical meditation on the legend of John Henry being presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Sunday. Not familiar with John Henry’s amazing exploits? Try YouTube. According to “Steel Hammer,” there are more than 500 recordings of various folk songs written about John Henry available on that website. “Then they got tired and wrote, ‘Less relevant items not displayed,’” as one of the narrators in the opening section wryly remarks. Whether an actual John Henry lived or not, he entered American folklore, in the late 19th century, as a black railroad worker who won a race against a steam engine, boring a tunnel through a mountain with only the power of his muscles — and that steel sledgehammer — to drive him.

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