LSO St Luke's, London, Sat 11th May
”John Henry told the Captain
A man ain't nothin' but a man”
Much like 'Cruel Sister', the piece that me introduced me to the music of post-minimalist composer Julia Wolfe, this spins out an extended modernist composition from an old folk number. This time, in it's UK premiere, we're given the popular ballad 'John Henry' - the steel-drivin' man performed by Bang on a Can. Except there's an added dimension...
Much like comics or science fiction fans, folk purists like the idea that there was once a definitive version of something. It's probably inaccessible now, buried under the onslaught of a thousand updates, offshoots and commercialisations. But, in theory at least, the treasure lies intact - buried beneath the sand.
Now this is of course an even more absurd way of looking at folk music than it is for science fiction or comics. A comic character such as Superman, who is in many ways a cousin to John Henry, has definite authors we can trace him back to. They in no way occupy the importance that fans attribute to them, but they're there.
Folk tracks don't work that way at all. Each new iteration just adds to what's gone before. (You may well have heard me say all this already. You're probably expecting me to use the metaphor of growing like coral any time now.)
We don't know who wrote the original John Henry ballad, though it probably dates only as far as the 1870s. (Little more than a lad by folk's extended chronology.) And, though there's speculation over who the original John Henry might have been, even if we're to assume his existence it's at about the same level of importance as if Superman had been based on some real guy. What's significant is that he's a symbol of the working man. For the ballad to be effective, it has to work as a kind of template that can be applied to many actual faces.
Except this isn't so much a new take, nor even a restaging of one of the old takes. It's more like a taking up of all the old takes at once, a reframing which incorporates them all. It starts with an extended choral repetition of the original's phrase “some say...” before listing a slew of States.
In one sense it borrows a trick from Steve Reich's minimalist classic 'Different Trains.' Every word we use has a double existence, a label for something but also a set of sounds – a mini music score in the making. You hear “Ken-tuu-cky” and “O-hiiio” stretched by the singers, passing back and forth between the two states in our minds. Except Reich's work was based in highly personal memories. What's captured here is the broad swell of Henry's history. There are variants where he is black and others where he is white. Here he's black and white. It works like one of those motion capture photosnaps, which portray a person's limbs in a blurry assemblage of different positions. It's the sum total of those positions which make up Henry.
“Some say...” is of course picked up as a phrase precisely because it's such a staple of folk songs or tales. Yet for all its distillation of these, the piece ends up doing something folk songs never quite manage themselves. Tending to be narrative based, they tend to start “some say...” then follow one particular trail. You need the multiplied versions to see the multiple picture.
With it's changes in tempo and musical style, everything from simple stomping feet to the crash of a full ensemble, Wolfe's meta-textual version gives us a frame for the songs which the songs themselves would not. She's playing on something in this style of music which is transcendent, which is beyond specifics.
Which is of course all to the good. Single, unified versions are inherently to do with restriction, and very often with power. If in my town Henry is white and yours he's black, and if my town is larger with a bigger printing press, then he'll turn out white soon enough.
The only drawback may be that there's so much universalisation that there's not much room for the actual John Henry. Had you known nothing of the folk original, you'd probably have guessed 'Cruel Sister' involved murder by medium of water. I'm not quite sure you hear the steel hammer in quite the same way here. Would you have seen this piece and gleaned 'man versus machine... man wins... man dies'?, which seems the irreducible core of 'John Henry.' The frame perhaps gets cast too expansively, it ends up more like a template for a folk song than an example of one. (Much minimalist and post-minimalist music, including Wolfe's own compositions, involve a live player working with pre-recordings. That must intersect with the Henry tale somehow.)
But still, it's a modernist composer not cherry-picking from the folk tradition but enthused by what's unique to it, and keen to respond in kind - with material unique to composing. In the Q&A after the recent 'Repeating Patterns' New York Minimalism night, people were keen to know what it was like to be in that scene as it happened. And understandably so, for it was a momentous era. But, for those of us too late to the party, we have what it morped and developed into. And if her London excursions are anything to go by Wolfe seems to be right at the top of her game about now.
The bill also included... Terry Riley's 'Tread On the Trail'. Unlike Riley's normal transcendental compositions, this was like a dime bar jazz band listened to through a distorting mirror. Which is of course a good thing. Plus another UK premiere, Nico Muhly's 'Three Songs.' The event was part of a mini-festival curated by Muhly, 'A Scream and an Outrage. The piece didn't mean a thing to me if I'm honest...
A kind of best-of showreel of the piece...
..and just in case you've not heard the original, here's one version by Woodie Guthrie...