Inspired by her love for the music and lore of Appalachia, Julia Wolfe based her text for Steel Hammer (called a "wild hybrid" by The New York Times) on more than 200 versions of the "John Henry" ballad, which has been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen. A runner-up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, Steel Hammer features the alternately haunting and playful vocalizations of Norway's renowned Trio Mediaeval, and stretches the standard instrumentation of the Bang on a Can All-Stars with wooden bones, mountain dulcimer, banjo, clapping, clogging, and much more.
"Steel Hammer is a return to my musical roots in folk music," Wolfe explains. "When I wrote the piece, I looked to the breadth of musicianship in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Trio Mediaeval was also a key inspiration, because they bring a beautiful pure sound and a real depth of emotion to the work. And last but not least, I was moved by the myriad of songsters, some known, some not-so-known, who filled my ears with their own personal versions of the John Henry ballad."
Steel Hammer premiered in November 2009 at the University of Florida, and eventually made its way to Carnegie's Zankel Hall for its New York debut. Writing for The New Yorker, Alex Ross referred to the work as "a musical archaeology of a familiar tale—one that preserves, even enlarges, its central mystery." In exploring the subject of human vs. machine in the quintessential American tall tale, Steel Hammer evokes a swirling gumbo of folk, bluegrass, post-minimalist, and classical motifs, each referring back to the other in a call-and-response ritual that breathes new life into the legend.