John Henry is an American folk hero who worked as a steel-driver in the 1870’s. The job of the steel-drivers was to hammer holes into rock so that explosives could be packed in and blast a path for new railroad tracks. It was a rough job worked by many former slaves in the Reconstruction era with little regard paid to their safety and their lives. According to some legends, John Henry was a large and powerful man who could swing a hammer from birth and was exceptional as a steel-driver. His hero status, however, was cemented when blasting through a mountain in competition with a steam-powered drill. As the stories tell us, a steam drill was brought in to speed up the drilling through the mountain but John Henry was not going to be out done. John Henry and the steam drill raced each other to the center of the mountain with John Henry emerging victorious only to collapse and die from exhaustion.
For our song, we tried to tell the story without words. The ring of the hammer is echoed with a regular percussive hit throughout, with the energy of the piece building to a climax. When the dust settles the melody is retold first in celebration over John Henry’s victory but then again in sorrow over his death.
"The folk story has been told and retold often in song. The version recorded by Big Bill Broonzy has captivate my attention for years. Aside from the blazing guitar picking and wailing vocals, I was really struck by some of the dramatic lyrics:
And the last words that I heard that poor boy say
‘Will you give a cool drink of water before I die’
"When I was looking for American folk material to base a composition off of, this seemed an obvious choice. John Henry has always been a very potent story line. A classic underdog story, John Henry as a character represents the most marginalized in American society as a working class black man and he has been utilized by various labor movements and the Civil Rights Movement as a source of inspiration.
John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.
"Indeed, some of his relevance remains. In the 21st century, we still struggle to cope with technology creeping into the workforce. Furthermore, racial turmoil has bubbled to the surface of American society yet again with the Black Lives Matter movement pointing out the institutionalized racism that still exists. Perhaps John Henry’s work, still, is not done. Hammering to the center of the mountain; proving himself against insurmountable odds; asserting his personhood, value, and worth despite those that seek to dehumanize and devalue him. “Before I let your steel drill beat me down, I will die with a hammer in my hand.”
Our first signature composition ‘Yeşil Şiir' is based on the poem of the same title by the famous Turkish poet Can Yucel. About the poets love for a green world, 'Yeşil Şiir' is considered a very important example of contemporary Turkish poetry. The 3 stanzas of the poem are mirrored in 3 sections in the composition. Beginning with dreamy harmonics, the intro section reflects Can Yucel’s depiction of the stars in his first few words. This example of picturesque reflection between the music and the poetry continues to collaborate throughout the composition and brings the listeners into the our world.
Completed in 2015, 'Yeşil Şiir' has gotten great reactions from listeners and inspired us to write more music for the duo.
Garrett Shatzer is a composer that we have been familiar with since we began grad school in 2010. Colleagues of ours the Mobius Trio were playing a piece by him, “The Transition”. We were attracted to the somewhat dark and introspective nature of Garrett’s music. In gathering repertoire recently, we have been pre-occupied with incorporating Turkish and American folk elements. To that end, it occurred to us that Garrett’s music captured a similar aesthetic to the music of Skip James, the great Delta Blues singer/guitar player. Fast forward from our first introduction in 2010, and as we were fumbling to find our way on Twitter recently we bumped into Garrett again and a collaboration was born.
"I'm really looking forward to this project with Duo Tandem. I mean, I love writing for guitar. However, somewhat counterintuitively, it's also incredibly difficult to do. First of all, I believe guitar is the most difficult instrument to write for, especially if you're not a guitarist. I happen to be a guitarist, so you'd think that'd make things easier. And to some extent, you're right. However, I feel an added pressure -- real or not! -- to write truly effective, idiomatic music for the instrument. That's probably just me psyching myself out, but there it is. And writing for one guitar is hard enough. Two? Man...it's intimidating. In any event, I'm up for the challenge!
"As for the project itself, I'm amped that the guys asked me to respond to the music of Skip James. I know a bit of the blues (the music, not the hardships), but I wasn't too familiar with his work. But I've listened to a lot of his output since being approached with this project, and I can see why they connected my music to his. I love the idea of using new music to somehow "communicate" with this legendary figure, and I'm anxious to see what comes out when I finally sit down to work on it."