Continuing my preparation for the upcoming ‘Tracks Of The Deep South’ Tour and I came across the Gandy Dancers. Their songs, combined with the spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants of Black America feed directly into the creation of the Blues, and since we’ll be visiting Beale Street, Memphis, the birthplace of the Blues, it’s worth taking a further look.
“Gandy Dancer” is a slang term used for early railroad workers in the United States, also known as “section hands”, who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. In English we would call them “Navvies” and in the South-Western USA & Mexico they were known as “Traqueros”.
Though rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties (sleepers) and the mass of the crushed rock (ballast) beneath them, each pass of a train around a curve would produce a tiny shift in the tracks, requiring that work crews periodically realign the track. If allowed to accumulate, such shifts could eventually cause a derailment. Teams of men would manually shift and realign the track using iron (Gandy) bars, working in unison, and, although these workers came from many ethnic backgrounds, Black Americans had an existing tradition of work chants and songs to coordinate these tasks.
This was hard manual labour, often performed in Southern Summer weather. Work songs and field hollers sung in a call-and-response format were used to coordinate the various aspects of all rail maintenance; slower speech-like “dogging” calls to direct the picking up and manipulating of the steel rails and unloading, hauling and stacking of the ties, and more rhythmic songs for spiking and lining (aligning) the rails and tamping the bed of ballast beneath them.
You can get a better understanding of how the track is actually moved from this 1929 film showing the Gandy Dancers in action. Hard work!