Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by Black men.
The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.
The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-38971).
Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.
4 Responses to Gandy dancers
this is a fabulous! thanks so much for flagging this up – what an example of work song in action. The film shines more light on the Lomax recordings and of course Zora Neale Hurston. To see it on screen brings it all to life. Thanks for this!
Margaret Bennett (folklorist)
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This is great! I mentioned it on our blog, and forwarded to our Scottish music students … a propos of call-and-response singing http://whittakerlive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/from-waulking-to-railways-make.html
Thanks–it’s a wonderful film!