A diary account of the making of Gandy Dancers by folklorist Maggie Holtzberg.
In the Fall of 1988, I was hired as a folklore fieldworker to document traditional folk music in Alabama by the Alabama State Council for the Arts. I had the good fortune to work under the guidance of state folklorist, Joey Brackner, in the Folklife Program.1 Soon after I arrived, I became aware of Dr. Jim Brown's work with a retired railroad laborer Mr. John Henry Mealing of Birmingham.
Railroad section gang songs had fascinated me ever since 1972 when my father and I happened to catch one of Charles Kurault's On the Road features of a gandy dancer crew at work in Moss Point, Mississippi. There was something oddly captivating about the coordinated movements of the men and their call-and-response singing. Kurault had assumed that this was one the last crews to do this work by hand. Here it was, 16 years later. Knowing that the occupational art of calling was fast receding into the collective memories of railroad retirees, I was motivated to locate individuals and document what I could of their passive repertoire of work song lore, before it was lost.
At the start, I contacted railroad company officials. When I asked about finding gandy dancers to talk to, there was often a short pause and then a perplexed comment as to how I knew of this arcane tradition. One man laughed and told me I would need to contact a medium since the use of section gangs was abolished in the 1960s. There were, however, some encouraging leads. An owner of a railroad maintenance company remembered "one caller with a real high pitched voice who could go ten hours a day and never repeat a chant." He agreed that it was important to document what remained of the calling tradition but said, "One man couldn't begin to explain the process of lining track. You would have to get a crew together to do it," which, in the end, was exactly what we did.
Following the advice of Jim Brown, I sought out older or recently retired roadmasters. These were the men who had been in daily charge of dispatching section crews and who therefore might know who the callers were and where they might be living. After three months, Joey Brackner and I had located and met with ten retired callers from a geographical area including Montgomery, Mobile, Birmingham, Gordonville, and Meridian, Mississippi. We interviewed all but one of the railroad men in their homes. A number of the men mentioned the difficulty of trying to call track on the couch, in the living room, as opposed to being out on the track with the sound of rapping lining bars to call against. At Abraham Parker's suggestion, we organized a gathering of those who lived enough to Calera, Alabama, where the Heart of Dixie Railroad Club was rebuilding their depot museum. CSX, formerly the Seaboard Railroad Company, kindly supplied the tools for the day.
December in Calera, Alabama that year was mild. Seven retired railroad workers showed up for our gathering that morning. Despite the fact that many of the men had never met before, they shared a lifetime of comparable experiences. The man that had traveled the farthest to be there was John Cole of Lauderdale, Mississippi, He came dressed in green coveralls, black snakeskin cowboy boots, and his Mobile & Ohio Railroad cap. As soon as he established himself as the oldest man of the group, he donned his "Big Daddy" cap. It was hard to believe his 82 years - he seemed to upstage and out-sing all the others. The high point of the day was when a train came through on a nearby track, blowing its whistle. Like a native language, not heard in decades, the sound of the whistle transported the men.
Cole exclaimed, "Listen to that train. Yeah! That's a train! The hawk and buzzard went up north . . . You hear it blowing. I got a gal live behind the jail . . . That's a train . . . all it took was that noise." The train whistle blew and dopplered down in pitch.
A week later, Joey and I went to visit Cornelius Wright in his Birmingham office. Cornelius was amazed with how the group came together, considering that the men had worked for the Frisco, the L&N, the Western and the Southern Railway lines, "No one knew anybody. And it was just like, you might say, a group of football players or baseball players - we all played baseball but we all played with different teams. So we come to play on this team; it was like an all-star game. When I went around there talking with the guys, here you got a guy from Mobile and you got a guy from west of Montgomery, and you got guys from the north part of the state - all being able to unify themselves there, and it came together."
It was at that December gathering that I realized we had to make a documentary film about these men and their tradition. Around the same time I started communicating with Barry Dornfeld, who I had met while we were both graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. He had already worked on several folklore documentaries and was interested in the project. It took us nearly a year and a half to raise the $73,000 needed to produce the 16 mm film.2 Meanwhile, I stayed in touch with the retired gandy dancers I had interviewed in Alabama and Mississippi. And by late May of 1991, we were ready to shoot.
Film Shoot May 31-June 2, 1991
5/30/91 I met up with assistant cameraman Jason Dowdle in Atlanta. We drove to Birmingham with $2,200 worth of film stock. There we met up with the rest of the crew: Barry Dornfeld (o-producer/co-director), Richard Chisolm (cinematographer) and Jim Hawkins (sound recordist).
We had set up a gathering of six retired gandy dancers for Saturday at the Heart of Dixie Railroad Club in Calera. I was disheartened that John Cole was not well enough to come on Saturday. His cancer had flared up again and he needed to go back into the hospital. He was so disappointed not to be able to make it. He told me that he has lots to tell and it's not written down, but all in his head. I realize how much I have envisioned the film around him - his laughter and boisterous storytelling, his "tamp 'em up solid," his scrapbook, his Mobile Bay story, and the photograph of him as a young man on a section bridge gang. I entertain the thought of the crew traveling to him in Lauderdale, Mississippi. . .
5/31/91 Friday Morning: We all met for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. A crew member from the Southern Railroad was going to meet and chaperone us to the Errol Norris yard in Irondale where a "super gang" (39 men and machines) was finishing up the last of their work. Mike Reid, the engineer was the official contact. He made us sign waivers and wear hard hats. All in all, they were extremely accommodating. We shot three to four rolls, documenting everything from spike removers to tampers to ballast regulators to lining. What a lot of noise! And fumes. And heat. The sun was fierce.
After we finished in Irondale, we filmed some slow moving trains and railroad bridges. Took a dinner break and then at 5:30 left for Cornelius Wright's house in Powderly, just outside of Birmingham. The two-story brick house that he built in1969 had eleven exterior doors for fire safety. The living room was full of 1960s-era photographs - family portraits faded to a pale reddish hue. Cornelius' father, "C" Wright, age 87, arrived. We got everything set up and started the interview by 6:45. We were forced to turn off the air conditioning because it was so noisy - and the room temperature slowly rose to 90 degrees.
Barry wanted to ask the questions that I had written, feeling the men would be more spontaneous speaking to a stranger, or at least someone they hadn't been interviewed by previously. I ended up sitting or standing close behind Barry so they could answer to us both. They seemed more animated with me in view.
Cornelius Wright, Sr. said a few interesting things but seemed glum. Although. His presence, however, did bring out some nice father son rapport. At one point, Cornelius Sr. got himself a glass of ice water. In the middle of Cornelius' story we all suddenly heard this startingly amplified sound of the crunching of ice in our headphones. Much like the invasive interruption of a telephone ring, the sound was undeniably disruptive. We all glanced at each other. Fortunately, the ice was crunched and swallowed. Relief, until we saw him raise his glass for more ice. At that point, Barry kindly asked him if could refrain from chewing the ice.
Cornelius' wife, Quintess "Queen" had retired from teaching 3rd grade this day. She spent the entire interview time upstairs, no doubt wondering why the house was getting so hot.
6/1/91 Up early again on Saturday for the gathering. Another clear hot day. Six retired gandy dancers showed up in various cars: John Henry Mealing, Abraham Parker, Cornelius Wright, Jr., Arthur James, Henry Caffey, and Willie Henderson. The Heart of Dixie Railroad folks were great, having arranged for CSX to supply railroad tools, and providing ice water and lunch. Joey Brackner, state folklorist with the Alabama State Council on the Arts, was there shooting stills. The morning shoot was great. We got many tight shots of excellent calling. Some dirty calls even. Everyone was more animated than usual, especially Cornelius. Since John Cole wasn't there, it allowed Cornelius to take his place in a way. Cornelius fell into the roll of ring leader - taking care of the other men. He helped them fill out the release forms.
They did some spiking, which takes impressive exertion. This worried me because of the oppressive heat. They also did some rhythmic tamping.
After lunch, we did a group interview with them sitting on the deck benches. Got some intense material about race relations, in particular from Henry Caffey. At Richard's suggestion, we ended by letting them each sing one call in succession, a new narrative form born out of the performance situation. All in all, it seemed like a very productive day.
We had planned on shooting several interviews around Montgomery with Arthur James and Henry Caffey. I was so disturbed about not seeing John Cole that I got the idea to drive west to Lauderdale, Mississippi on Sunday. I talked with Barry about it and convinced him we should do it. I phone John Cole to see if we could show up the next day. He was so out of breath when I reached him on the telephone - but he said he'd be able to talk. I called back several hours later and talked with his son, just to check on John's physical condition. His son said that John was "an old man" but that he was getting revved up for our visit.
We left Birmingham Sunday morning at 7:15. Barry and I got to the Toomsuba exit first but managed to get lost. We took Rt. 11/80 toward Meridian (my fault). We couldn't find anyone that knew John Cole. Once we found our way back to Lauderdale, a big old Chevy stopped. The man gave us directions, but since he was facing in the opposite direction, he got his lefts and rights confused. They noticed us making a wrong turn in their rearview mirror and came to get us. "We're fixing to carry y'all out to the Cole's Place." How grateful we were.
When we arrived, Jim, Richard, and Jason were already there, sitting and talking with John Cole on his screened-in front porch. It was a small space, roughly fifteen-foot square. John had brought out three scrapbooks and other papers to show us. He gave me some railroad papers, including a life insurance policy for someone named Lewis Amos, a pamphlet from the GM&O Railroad, and a color snapshot of him feeding his hog three loaves of packaged white bread. I commented on the hot weather. He responded,
"I like the heat. The hotter it is, the better I feel. I'm used to going to sleep at night, looking through the cracks and seeing my hog asleep under there. . . just whatever you're used to."
It rained and thundered during our shoot. While we were finishing up, John's wife Rose slipped us a handwritten note through the open screen door saying "Lunch is ready. Hot and on the table." Seeing we weren't recording anymore she asked us if we wanted some beer.
Their home was a simply constructed I-house of sorts. No air conditioning, but plenty of fans. It was bought for $3,500 in 1969. The bedroom had one big double bed and one single bed. I recalled John Cole telling me that he and Rose had had 16 children, including four sets of twins. Above the dresser was an enlarged photograph from 1939 of a Mobile Bay railroad crew. On the facing wall were portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. ("Ghandi" a vernacular term for MLK among blacks at Morehouse College, according to Cornelius Wright).
Like many typical southern rural homes, the kitchen had a deep freeze. It dated back to 1939 and was still running. Richard, Jason, and I took seats around the kitchen table to eat some of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Rose had served and drink sweet tea. When Rose wandered in, Richard looked up at her and smiled, "When you have sixteen children, what's three more for lunch?" Rose giggled a toothless smile.
When we began to pack things up to go, Rose called me in to a back pantry area, saying, "I've got something to give you." She led me to a highboy whose upper shelves were stacked with decorative glassware and a few ceramics. To my surprise, she offered, "Take anything you like." This was just like my own grandmother would do - send you home with a gift from her collectibles. I tried to politely decline, suggesting that she save these for her grandchildren. After trying to walk away empty-handed, Rose wouldn't have it. She selected a ceramic vase for me. After I accepted, I realized it was far more important for her to give me something than for me to not take it. "Thank you," I said, "It has a rose on it, to remember you by."
Both John and Rose and their children seemed immeasurably pleased by the small check we gave them. Rose whispered to me, barely mouthing the word, "He has cancer. John said he was so pleased he'd gotten to say the things he did about the railroad before he died." Just before we left, John himself repeated the sentiment, "Glad I could talk with y'all before I die. Be sure to send a copy. My wife will get it."
To hear such words, to sit there while the camera was rolling and the Nagra was recording these past three days, has felt so right. Like a load off my mind. Whatever small contribution this film will make, it sure feels important to me to have a part of these men's lives documented.
(Three and a half months later, on October 23, John Cole's daughter telephoned to let me know, "He passed away this morning, after six weeks in the hospital.")
Heard from Worth Long who has been working Arlene Reinbecker of the Smithsonian Institution to bring the gandy dancers to this year's festival (25th Annual Folklife Festival.) Worth had met the men at the festival we had in Birmingham. He has arranged to bring Cornelius Wright, Jr., Abraham Parker, Arthur James, and John Henry Mealing to spend two weeks in Washington, D.C. They will perform at the "Roots of Rhythm and Blues" stage, Jeff Todd Titon will present them. Barry and Richard will shoot some rolls for our film. When I speak with Cornelius about this he says, "Most of these men have never gone to Washington. They haven't had the advantages I've had." The group of them will take the train up.
Barry and Richard will spend a day or two and do some filming of them at the festival. Arlene is going to get a section of railroad track and ballast.
We probably won't do another shoot, except maybe some B roll. I am a little worried that the visual material we have is all close-ups of faces, talking heads, passing trains, and mechanized equipment. My gut sense is that we need to shoot some greenery, nature, exteriors of homes, scenes of Birmingham, and establish how we got from Alabama to Cole's house in Mississippi.
Back home in Athens, Georgia I ran into UGA football coach Vince Dooley at the Old Black Dog restaurant. I asked him about the quote that Cornelius had attributed to him -- that football players [and, by extension, railroad workers] need to be three things: Agile, mobile, and hostile." Vince said that it was black coach Jake Gaithers of Florida A & M who originated the maxim. "A dramatic coach with a great team. A man who, for understandable reasons, was against integration of sports teams."
6/4/91 Shipped 27 rolls of film to Du Art Film Labs in NYC.
6/14/91 Received four cassette copies of the sound reels and began transcribing. By the end of June, I'd finished transcribing the entire thing: 33 single-spaced pages in all.
7/3/91 Spoke with Barry last night. Their shoot in DC went fine although it was very hot. Abraham Parker wasn't feeling well. John Henry Mealing and Cornelius Wright went. They brought two new fellows with them and Barry got a good interview with one of them, Ernest Carrington.
We continue to do research on locating archival stills, footage, and sound recordings. I spend one morning searching for the existence of the Gandy Manufacturing Company, to no avail. This is the alledged company in Chicago that made railroad tools and is the source of the name "gandy dancer." Checked Poor's Manual of Railroad which lists advertisers, Cross Ties, Railway Age, and a number of other trade periodicals which list supply firms. Nothing. Finally called the Chicago Historical Society Library to ask if they could locate information on The Chicago Gandy Manufacturing. They have no published information on the company. They spot checked the city directories and found nothing. They tell me that they are asked periodically about this company, "It's like a legend."
The archivist at the Georgia Historical Society said she would search for the Gwinnett County photograph I'd seen of railroad workers. She suggested I contact the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah because they have the Central of Georgia Railroad company records. I do this and they offer to look at the collection and get back to me in a day or two. Unfortunately they have no photographs or rule books.
I speak with roots record producer Mike Schlesinger about locating early recordings of work songs. He suggests I contact record collector Pat Conti. Pat has a Paramount disc of Tennesee Coal and Iron (T.C.I.) track lining song and an Okeh recording of Tex Alexander calling track. "Two of my prized records; I paid dearly for them." We arrange to pay Pat for having a master made on ¼ inch tape of his Paramount and Okeh vintage recordings.
Meanwhile, Barry received the print I had had copied from the Georgia Archives, which he is pleased with. He sends me videos of rough mixes and we exchange comments, edits, etc. I take a 1960 field recording to WUGA radio for them to process through DBX.
I get to work on writing the narration.
11/17/91 I had worked with Angela Elam at WUGA radio producing a 30-minute radio feature on gandy dancers. I show Angela the rough assembly of the film. She likes it and makes some suggestions about which cuts seem too long, what might need translation or subtitles, and asks about narration. We agree that a woman's voice would be nice. She suggests Verta Mae Grovener. Then I suddenly think of Regina Taylor - the actress who plays one of the lead roles in the television show I'll Fly Away. It's a drama about a southern lawyer (Sam Waterston) with three children and a black housekeeper named Lilly. Set in 1958, it portrays a time when much of the South was still segregated. The television show is filmed on location in Madison, Georgia, about twenty miles west of Athens.
I call Jim Hawkins (our sound recordist) who is the sound recordist for I'll Fly Away. He suggests bringing a copy of the gandy dancer radio piece I've done to the set and have Regina listen to it. I also write to her about narrating the film.
Joey Brackner forwarded a letter he received from Stetson Kennedy to me. He had heard about our fieldwork and film project. He wanted to know if I knew about an audio tape he had done in 1939 with Herbert Halpert and Zora Neale Hurston in which she gave a vivid account of gandy dancing, including calls. Ormand Loomis at the Florida Folklife Program has the tape. I write to Ormand requesting a copy of the 1939 recording.
1/2/92 Received a transcript of the Zora Neale Hurston tape from 1939 and four days later the cassettes arrive in the mail. Wonderful stuff, even though the sound quality is poor. Also get a reel-to-reel tape from record producer Mike Schlesinger of Pat Conti's Paramount vintage recordings (TCI section crew).
1/8/92 Jim Hawkins called last night to tell me that Regina Taylor would like to do the narration on the film and that she would be back in town in a few days. How wonderful; I'm thrilled.
4/6/92 I mailed Cornelius Wright a copy of the TCI section crew recording on Paramount to get his opinion about it. Also asked if TCI sponsored quartets.
5/20/91 Called Beverly Brannon at the Library of Congress. She has located two photographs of John Lomax, though not fieldwork, and several images of Zora Neale Hurston, including a guitar player and some Carl Van Vechten portraits. She will send photocopies and order forms directly to Barry.
5/21/92 Received a letter from Cornelius today. He had listened to the TCI recording I'd sent him. His dad recalled that TCI sponsored baseball teams but not quartets. As for the "TCI Lining Track" recording, he agreed that it was probably recorded in a studio, rather than on location. His dad said that the tempos would have angered track crews and that they would have purposefully "kinked the track."
6/2/92 I hear from Spike Barkin, who is producing a concert series on roots music at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. He has arranged to feature several of our gandy dancers in an evening program. After flying north, I drive to New York City with my mother for the dress rehearsal of the concert that will take place later that evening. Regina Taylor had phoned the evening before to say she could make it to the rehearsal and meet the men. Mom and I are staying at the Salisbury Hotel on 57th Street, just across from Carnegie Hall.
While walking down 57th Street with my mom and talking about Regina's acting style, we practically bump right into her. She and I go into Weill Hall to find the dress rehearsal, which is already underway. John MacDonald, the stage manager, is in charge. He had arranged for some light gauge miner's rail to be set up on light crossties, only there wasn't enough weight on the rail to keep it from shifting when the six men rapped their bars against it. Someone attached clamps, which helped, but Cornelius Wright expressed concern, "See, it's giving off a different tone. There's not enough weight on the rail, which is causing that section of track to ring differently."
MacDonald was amazed at Cornelius' analysis and aesthetic concerns over the pitch of the ringing metal. He ran back to where Regina, Spike, and I were sitting and said, "That's something. I'm going to tell a story on that! This is a first for Carnegie Hall."
And so (I'm sure) were the obscenities that were called during the second half of the concert that evening. A caller that Cornelius had brought up from Birmingham sang some of the nastiest lines of the evening, including "Something b'tween her legs looks like horses eyes," and "bulldog fucking . . ." I noticed that some of the black women in the audience bristled and gave disapproving looks. Mom was sitting next to Odetta, who was dressed in African garb, stiffened noticeably. Aside from this, the majority of the evening's performance was received with frequent laughter and enthusiastic applause.
During the dress rehearsal, Cornelius came back to say hello. I introduced him to Regina Taylor, who he was thrilled to meet. (He too is a big fan of I'll Fly Away). Cornelius took Regina's hand and said, "Are you the Lilly from I'll Fly Away? What you do is very convincing." The other gandy dancers gathered around us. Cornelius took off his railroad cap, looking very serious, and told them, "Now, y'all owe me." He held out his cap, as if to take a collection. "You owe me for introducing you to such talent. Someday your great grandchildren will know who this woman is." Regina, who seemed quite shy, laughed and smiled. Cornelius and Elder Brown had cameras with them so Charlie Chin kindly shot snapshots as of all of us squeezed in together.
Before we left, Cornelius told Regina and me the following story.
"It was 1969 and I had been promoted to management. My wife Queenie and I were the only blacks in the Birmingham Country Club. The first dance we went to, several women approached Queenie. One said, 'We've been going to Arthur Murray for 20 years and we still can't dance like you do. Will you give us a lesson?' Queenie obliged, doing her gyrations until I stepped up carrying a bucket and said, 'Now hold on here. I'm an enterprising man. If y'all been paying Arthur Murray for 20 years you can make a contribution here.' I held out the bucket and collected $100."
After the dress rehearsal, we invited the men up to our hotel room to watch the video of our rough assembly. The hotel brought a VCR player up to the room. The men all gathered in the room. It was a bit awkward at first; there were only three chairs in the room. I invited them to sit down on the two double beds. What an experience - to watch them watching the video. After awhile they became engrossed, responding with less and less inhibition, voicing occasional outbursts such as one would hear in black church, "Lord have mercy," "That's right." They laughed at many of the calls. Arthur James, slim as a green bean, cracked up at one point, letting himself fall back flat on the bed.
6/24 Joanna Ross of Triad Artists called to ask when and where we wanted to record the narration. We have arranged to use Sandy Fuller's Magnetic Ltd. studio in Atlanta. We settle on a flat fee of $700.
8/20 Sent Cornelius a copy of the new script, asking him to review the narration for accuracy. Also sent Regina a copy and asked if she'd read a scratch version.
9/21/91 Came across a calendar of paintings by Florida painter Jonathan Green. (Given to my by W.W. Law of Savannah. One of the months was a reproduction of his 1990 painting, Gandy Men. It is wonderful. I located Green's phone number and called him to ask permission to use the painting in our film. He was very nice and was surprised and pleased to learn we were doing a film on gandy dancers. His uncles were gandy dancers. His father grew up at the Vamasi train station. As a child, Jonathan remembered being struck by the men's movements and singing. He was pleased to give us permission, but wanted us to mention that the original painting is in the collection of William A. Boone.
10/16/92 Screened the latest version of the film at the American Folklore Society annual meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. Both Alan Lomax and Bess Lomax Hawes were in the room. One person in the audience questioned how we were able to get such candid personal narratives from these men on film. Bess chimed in - "It's a matter of spending sufficient time with people in the field and gaining their trust." There was a discussion about subtitling - was it necessary? Several northerners enjoyed the film but didn't catch the lyrics. The sexually-explicit language went right by them. People wanted a section on how the men got to be callers. One film editor suggested lighting the entire film by one stop. The skin tones are very dark.
1/4/93 -1/7/93 Flew up to Philadelphia to Work on editing final cut. We added a section that Barry had shot last summer at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, explaining why these retired track laborers are singing again.
2/1/93 Recorded Regina Taylor at Magnetic, Ltd. I am pleased with the results, although it took awhile for her to get into it. In retrospect, I should have given her more direction.
Permalink (Permanent link to this page.)