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.