Released in 2010, American singer songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Introduced as a “folk opera”, the concept album began life as a stage production which premiered in 2006 in Mitchell’s home state of Vermont. Influenced by the plays and operas of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill and set in a post-apocalyptic American Depression era, Hadestown hinges on traditional folk, Appalachian, blues and gospel-style songs written by Mitchell and scored by Michael Chorney.

Anaïs Mitchell - Hadestown (2010)
Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown (2010)

One funny thing is, the first song ideas came as long ago as 2004-5. I didn’t get deep into it till ’06 when we started working on the production, but in any case, the Depression-era stuff was part of the show long before the US economy tanked […] The whole show became uncannily relevant in the past year or so, which I didn’t expect. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown history [2010]

Initially performed by Anaïs Mitchell and a chorus of local singers and friends, the show first toured New England before being gradually reworked. New songs were added and the whole set was eventually recorded in studio. At the recording stage, Hadestown featured a stellar cast of 22 musicians (guitars, accordion, piano, cello, violin, trombone, trumpet, vibraphone, drums etc.) and singers which included Anaïs Mitchell herself as Eurydice, Ani DiFranco as Persephone, Greg Brown as Hades, Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) as Orpheus, Ben Knox Miller (of The Low Anthem) as Hermes and The Haden Triplets (Petra, Rachel & Tanya) as the Fates.

With its archetypal cast, its vaudeville style and echoes of Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall, Hadestown articulates a very strong social and political commentary on the contemporary Western world, notably with a song like “Why we build the wall” featuring the gravelly and “subterranean” voice of Greg Brown.

I really and truly had no specific place in mind when I wrote “Why We Build the Wall.” People often say, “Oh, that’s just like Israel/Palestine, or that’s just like the US/Mexico border,’” and maybe it is, but the song was written more archetypally. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown history [2010]

Why do we build the wall? / My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?[…]

What do we have that they should want? / We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none / And our work is never done
My children, my children / And our war is never won
The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free / That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free / We build the wall to keep us free