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Transcript

Gandy Dancers

Copyright 1994 Barry Dornfeld and Maggie Holtzberg

All Rights Reserved

Transcription of the sound track to Gandy Dancers with film notes by Maggie Holtzberg

ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF TRACK LINERS. LOCATION UNKNOWN

[CALLER LINING TRACK] [SINGING]

Everybody round, man.

Whoah . . . Lula, Lula, don't you know?

I ain't gonna be your man no more.

Lula, [?]

Whup. We're going back. Yeah man.

Hup, just right there.

[CROSSFADE]

SCREENED PORCH AT HOME OF JOHN COLE IN LAUDERDALE, MISSISSIPPI

COLE: We had one fella’ and he would sing and he was a good singer. And he’d sing to the timber and he said, [SINGING]

I got the St. Lois Blues, hah,

I’m just as blue as I can be, hah.

I’ve got the St. Lois Blues, hah,

I’m just blue as I can be, hah!

And so we had a white boy and we’d make him sing too, you know. [CHUCKLES SOFTLY] His name was Mr. Cheney, I never will forget it. “It’s your turn to sing, now sing to it.” So he sang. He said,[SINGING]

Hah! I got the same damn thing, hah,

The nigger say he had, hah.

I got the same damn thing, hah,

The nigger say he had. Aagh!

TITLE: Gandy Dancers

And we would always boost him, “Sing there! Sing.” [LAUGHS]

RAILROAD TRACKS AT HEART OF DIXIE RAILROAD CLUB IN CALERA, ALABAMA

WRIGHT: [SINGING][LINING TRACK]

Whooh, yeah.

Up and down this road I go,

Skippin’ and dodgin’ a 44[1].

Hey man, can't you line it?

Hey, won't you line it?

Hey man, can't you line it?

Hey, Won't you line it?

Stand on the rock where Moses stood.

CAFFEY: [SINGING]

Whoa, I been out east, been way out west,

Believe I like Alabama the best.

Been way east, been way out west.

I believe I like oh, 'bama the best.

[BIRD SINGING IN BACKGROUND]

JAMES: [SINGING]

I got a gal in every town,

Didn’t want to seem her til the sun went down.

I got a gal, every town.

Didn't want to see her, sun went down.

WRIGHT: [SINGING]

I don’t know but I’ve been told,

Susie had a jelly roll.

I don't know, but I've been told,

Susie had a jelly roll.

If I could, I surely would,

Stand on the rock where Moses stood.

[SINGING CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]

[ARCHIVAL STILLS OF GANDY DANCERS TAMPING, LINING TRACK, REPLACING CROSSTIES, REPAIRING A FLOOD, SHOVELING BALLAST AND LINING TRACK.]

(V/O): The work songs these retired laborers are demonstrating grew out of a tradition they helped shape. In the segregated south, it was primarily black men who served as the custodians of the railway lines, laying and maintaining tracks by hand labor. These section crews were known as gandy dancers. They worked for companies like the Southern, L & N, and Seaboard, doing what was considered the most physically demanding and the lowest paying jobs on the railroad. By the 1940s, the mechanization of track work reduced the need for such section gangs.

Gandy dancers were expected to lay new rail, replace rotten crossties, repair tracks damaged by floods, and tightly pack, or tamp, the gravel bed on which the tracks lay. But most of their time was spent straightening sections of track that had been pounded out of alignment by the tremendous and frequent weight of passing trains. Using five-foot linging bars, each weighing over 20 pounds, gangs pulled in unison, inching the track back into line.

SILENT ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF GANDY DANCERS CARRYING RAILS AND TRACK LINING

Coordination and timing of each man’s exertion was critical. One member of the gang, the caller, synchronized the group’s physical movements with his voice, ensuring safety and pacing, while spiritually uplifting the men at their work.

[SINGING] WHoa,

Mary and Martha, Magdalene

Prettiest woman I ever seen.

Mary, Martha. And Mag

CALERA, ALABAMA

CORNELIUS [SINGING]

Susie wore a red dress,

Mary wears a blue.

Yon' comes sister in a yellow dress,

Now think what you can do

(V/O) No one knows for sure where the term gandy dancer comes from. These retired callers attribute the name to the long-defunct Gandy Manufacturing Company, which made railroad tools.

LIVING ROOM AT HOME OF CORNELIUS WRIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

WRIGHT: Gandy Manufacturers [2] produced the tools or most of the tools. And I think it was a tag that was put on the men. See, it was from the dancing part came, like Dad said, it was from the rhythm of the men. So they put the two words together, the tools made by Gandy and here was the rhythm supplied by the men.

SCREENED PORCH AT HOME OF JOHN COLE IN LAUDERDALE, MISSISSIPPI

COLE: The gandy dancer takes two steps forward – two good steps forward – and then he cut the buck and step backwards. They say that when they move. That’s the dance, in the movement. You could do that dance, and you didn’t have to sing, when you was lining track. You take two steps forward and one step backward. Two long steps and a step backwards to put you in your position so you could go.

LIVING ROOM AT HOME OF CORNELIUS WRIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

WRIGHT: There’s a caller there and, like Dad was saying, to synchronize the efforts. Cause if you don’t synchronize the efforts, everybody is picking up at different times, no man can lift that rail.

ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF CREW USING DOGGING TOOLS TO MOVE RAIL

WRIGHT: He would coordinate your activity and you would move on command.

LIVING ROOM AT HOME OF CORNELIUS WRIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

Now in lining track, you’re not only moving the rail, you’re moving the entire rail, ties[3], everything that’s there. And that’s why it called for tremendous coordination and strength. Now, a man has a tendency to become fatigued, has a tencdency, more or less, mentally. Once he tries at a thing several times and he doesn’t see any results from it, he has a tendency maybe to, you might say, give up. Now it’s the caller’s task to motivate these men.

HEART OF DIXIE RAILROAD CLUB IN CALERA, ALABAMA

CAFFEY: The boss man didn’t call you to do that.

MEALING: No.

CAFFEY: But you knew whether you had –

MEALING: You wasn’t assigned to do that.

CAFFEY: No. You see what it would take to do it. When the boy come out disheartened and got drunk, stayed out all night, broke down. Don’t want to work –

MEALING: Yeah, they done give out already! When you sing, that make them uplifted. So the fella’ asked me, “How do you fell when you’re singing?” I say, “I feel alright and they feels alright. And that make the job go easy.” That’s the way that was. You got to have somebody to preach to ‘em. That old man told me to talk my Latin.

[SINGING] Whoa, ho man.

Ain’t no need to be working so hard,

When I got a gal in the white folks yard.

Boy I'm living (3x) Whup!

She killed a chicken and saved me the head,

Thinks I’m working, I’m at home in the bed.

Boy I'm sleeping. Boy I'm sleeping. Sleeping easy, sleeping easy.

She killed a chicken and saved me the feet,

thinks I’m working, I’m loafing the street.Living them up,

Having a good time, with the other women. Getting by boys. Whoa.

SCREENED PORCH AT HOME OF JOHN COLE IN LAUDERDALE, MISSISSIPPI

COLE: So gandy dancing goes in with the music. That's the way it’s been since way back. In the beginning of the railroad, you had to line it up. That’s where the gandy dancers come in. And you even gandy danced behind a maul[4] . Even spiking, you make the spike maul talk; you sing to it. Like when you’re driving a spike down,

[SOUND OF SPIKING] ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE OF SPIKING

COLE [SINGING] “Big cat, little cat, teeniny kitten. Big cat!” That’s you driving the spike as hard as you could. He’d holler, “Make a wheel out of that maul.” And that means spike fast. And so, with two of us spiking, you make that maul talk! “Big cat, little cat, teeniny kitten,” and that spike would be down.

WRIGHT: He would have to make certain calls to make their minds or to motivate them to call upon the strength that they didn’t know they had. And most times, sometimes there were fun calls, sometimes there were sexual calls, or there were calls about, it you had a group of men there who were religious type men, there were religious type calls. So he had to have a repertoire of thoughts and ideas or calls in order to fit whatever the particular problem

PARKER: [SINGING]

Talk about the big cat, movin’ the steel

You oughta heard Eddy when she left Mobile.

Oh me, Oh me, Oh me.

COLE: [SINGING]

Up and down that M & O[5]

Lining track with a 44.

Ooh track buck jumping, huh!

The rail would go. “Ooh track buck jumping. Hunh.” And when it got far enough, the boss would holler, “Hoo-ee! Whup! Joint ahead.” Alright, the relay man said, “Joint ahead. And sing! The boss say you ain’t singing good enough. Sing!” We’d go down to the joint ahead.

[SINGING] I don’t know but I believe I will,

Make my home in Jacksonville.

Oh boys, throw it over, henh!

Oh boys, throw it over. Whup!

Quarter back![6]

What the boss say?

The boss say a quarter back.

He comes back in there, “Sing! Tell that nigger I said sing dirty down there, now. Tell him I said to sing dirty.” “Yes sir. He said sing dirty.”

WRIGHT: This is when the sexual calls came into being. And he might call a call like, [SINGS] “Susie wears a red dress, Mary wears a blue. Yonder comes Susie in a yellow dress, now think what you can do.” Now that man’s mind moves to that woman, see. So then he would perhaps follow it up, now that he’s got your mind away from what you’re doing. And the guys then would perhaps laugh and shout and get all jovial at that point.

COLE: [SINGING]

Birmingham ain’t no ham at all,

You oughta see that ham up my gal’s drawers.

“I tell that nigger, sing, nigger sing. Sing dirty. Go down to the quarter ahead and sing dirty.” “The boss said sing dirty, so sing dirty.”

[SINGING] I got a gal live behind the jail,

She got up on the door she got cock for sale.

Hah, throw it over.

Huh, ah throw it over.

“Go down to the long quarter and throw it a little bit. (3 times) Ah, right there.”

[SINGING} If you want to get good cock,

Catch the Cannonball and go to Little Rock.

Hunk, catch the Cannonball, go to Little Rock.

Aagh!

CAFFEY: [SINGING}

Susie, Susie, don’t you know,

I can make your belly grow.

JAMES: [SINGING]

The reason I love Caldonia so,

She rolls her belly like she do her dough.

CAFFEY: When they get to talkin’ that kind of talk, I don’t care how down-hearted a man feels, he’ll come back. He’ll come up. “Knock it back, you knock it too far. Knock it back.”

(VO): Gandy dancing was not strictly southern or black. Section crews were often made up of recent immigrants and ethnic minorities who vied for steady work despite exploitative wages and working conditions – the Chinese and Native Americans in the West, the Irish in the Midwest, East Europeans and Italians in the Northeast. Though gandy dancers sang their share of railroad songs, it may be that black gandy dancers were unique in their use of task-related work chants.

Folklorists and writers have long been drawn to this African-American work song tradition. John A. Lomax and his son Alan, working for the Library of Congress, recorded the railroad calls of numerous track workers throughout the deep South. Novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston collected songs and stories from black track workers in the Florida railroad camps. Lomax, Hurston, and others did much of their collecting during the 1930s. Ten years later, the introduction of machines foretold the end of gandy dancing as a functional tradition. Full mechanization followed in the 1970s, however, railroad companies still employ gangs who service in a day what it would have taken comparable hand labor a month to complete.

ON THE GROUNDS OF THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL

CARRINGTON: Can you imagine how hot it is here now and they got a train load of box cars piled this high with ties and you get that creosote on you – it’d peel you just like hot water. And we to pick those ties up. Everything we did by hand. Didn’t have no crane. And the boss was lookin’ at you and never thought you got hot or neither got tired. Then you had to stack ‘em, load them on a pushcart. And the boss, if he got tired, he ride on top and we had to push. So you can imagine how good I felt. I ain’t goin’ tell you how good I felt. I wish I could have turned the boxcar over with him in it. In my mind.

SCREENED PORCH AT HOME OF JOHN COLE IN LAUDERDALE, MISSISSIPPI

COLE: Now we had a foreman, he’s gone. Mr. Smith. He’d work you till you fall out. He wouldn’t do like you drive your mules, be hauling, and you see your mule give out of wind, and you always let him, in my time, you let him catch his wind. Now we had fellows like that. Wouldn’t give you no slack.

ON THE GROUNDS OF THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL

CARRINGTON: You have some bosses. Now I had some regular bosses, we was tops. But sometime, when he was off, vaction, some didn’t like my looks or maybe my attitude. I told them I come for one thing. I put in an honest day’s work I wanted money.

HEART OF DIXIE RAILROAD CLUB IN CALERA,ALABAMA

WRIGHT: Boss man might come up that morning teed off. He’s grumpy this morning. You could tell it in his voice, “Alright, you’re going line this track.” And you would know that that track was in perfect alignment. He’d take you to that hard spot.

CARRINGTON: I used to sing this one when I got made at one of them:

[SINGING] Boss can’t read, boss can’t write,

Boss can’t tell if the track is right.

Let’s go, let’s go.

Look at the boss man, how he stands,

Stand more like a farmer than a boss man.

Look at the boss,

How he stand.

(VO): When callers sang lyrics ridiculing their foremen, they were expressing jointly held grievances in song that they knew to be dangerous if voiced directly. This African-American tradition of resistance dates back to slavery when coded messages were expressed through the singing of field hollers, spirituals, and hymns.

On a larger scale, black track workers were certainly confined to low-level positions as manual laborers. Still, for blacks in the South, gandy dancing represented steady jobs and cash wages, thus enabling relative economic success. By the mid-1960s, some opportunities for promotion opened up, though most still faced formidable obstacles because of racial discrimination.

CARRINGTON: When I started with the railroad, it was $1.03 an hour, puttin’ in ties all day, and pulling in ties. After I moved up a nickel more working as a welder helper, I decided to put in for a job. Before they put blacks to burning, [?] supervisor tell me to tell him what a [?] Trained my boss.

DORNFELD (O/C): You trained your supervisor?

CARRINGTON: I trained my boss. Then when he learned from me, he became my boss. My supervisor called me, “What you doin’? That ain’t no, [PAUSES] no nigger job.” That’s what he said. “That’s a white man’s job.” I said, “Well I guess I’m fixin’ to turn white then” and walked on off.

HEART OF DIXIE RAILROAD CLUB IN CALERA,ALABAMA

CAFFEY: When I went for the foreman job, a lot of them kick me off, but they let me run it awhile. And find I can operate and they disqualify me and sent me back. Twice. And the union sent me back and told them that the man qualified for the job, I think he should have it. What fault you find with him? Say, “Ain’t got no faults on me, just black.” He said, “Well, if that’s what you kicking on, they might’s well go home. Cause he coming. He’s here to stay and more coming.” And so that’s what he turn out with. And so they just keep moving me till I went on to the top of the ladder. Became the foreman. Left foreman [and] came to be the roadmaster. Went on past foreman job.

ON THE GROUNDS OF THE SMITHSONIAN FOLKLIFE FESTIVAL

CARRINGTON: I never thought I would have put 36 years on the job when I went there. I was working for T.C.I.[7] Railroad. Machinery taken that job. With having a family, children, you just couldn’t walk off a job.

LIVING ROOM AT HOME OF CORNELIUS WRIGHT IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

WRIGHT: Those men who worked on the railroad were the pride of the community. And that’s where, I was saying the other day, where the women took pride. And they just didn’t let that man go away from home, even in his out dress, looking any kind of way. His clothes had to be a certain way, starched and ironed. Especially after they moved from there to some of the other jobs, like brakeman or fireman on the railroad. Andy they were well-respected men in the community.

SCREENED PORCH AT HOME OF JOHN COLE IN LAUDERDALE, MISSISSIPPI

COLE: If you was a railroad man, in my time, you was noticed, by white and black. You was noticed because that was money. Other words, even all the womens and gals would notice you, if you work for the railroad. “That’s a railroad man.” If you went there and you was dirty and nasty, you know, you couldn’t sit down. “Oh, sit down! Water clean anything.” And so, when you work for the railroad, in my time that was it. Cause that was the only money that black folks and most of the white people, if they didn’t already have it. Money was, ooh Lord.

(V/O): These gandy dancers had not done any active calling for 25 years when folklorists first brought them together in the late 1980s. The attention jogged the work songs from memory into staged performance. Repeated requests have created an opportunity for these retired workers to enjoy an unexpected vocation as folk performers. A lifetime of hard labor is recast into stage performance, leaving audiences with a lasting impression of the gandy dancers collective knowledge, rhythm, and folklore.

HEART OF DIXIE RAILROAD CLUB IN CALERA,ALABAMA

MEALING: [SINGING}

Standing on the corner with a [?]

[?] with a little axle grease

Slidin’ them in, slidin’ them in.

Ten thousand biscuits in my hand,

Goin’ sop my way to the Promised Land.

CREDITS ROLL

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