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More gandy dancing

Posted by ESC on June 11, 2004

In Reply to: More gandy dancing (lining up properly) posted by Brian from Shawnee on June 11, 2004

: : : : : The Gandy Shovel Company made long handled shovels, broad at the blade with a fairly long handle, nicknamed "Irish Banjos" which workers used to build and maintain the railroad. The men would insert the blade of this shovel beneath the rail and dance up and down the long handle while other workers filled beneath the rail in order to level the track. The action became known as "gandy dancing."
: : : : : Paddy on the Railroad (Traditional) - one of the more popular Irish Gandy Dancer songs which kept the rail-spikers in beat as they built America's railroads.One of their most important tools in the un-ending quest to keep the tracks supported and aligned, was a colorful repertoire of call-and-response work songs that are the very basis of the Blues.

: : : Pick an' shovel...huh,
: : : am so heavy...huh,
: : : Heavy as lead...huh,
: : : heavy as lead...huh
: : : Pickin', shov'lin'...huh
: : : pickin', shov'lin'...huh
: : : Till I'm dead...huh
: : : till I'm dead...

: : : Work songs have always eased the pain of hard labor, but in the case of railroad work, and as in sea shanties, the rhythm of the song was vital to the execution of the task at hand. One man with a lever can't move a railroad track, but five men all levering at the same instant can. The easiest way to get all the power at the same time was with a song rhythm.

: : : Gandy Dancers had several jobs on the track. They replaced rotten cross ties and replaced and tamped down gravel between ties. Their most coordinated task was rail alignment. Tracks would shift slightly after a certain amount of traffic. If not aligned, derailment, and disaster could occur. Aligning track was a difficult task because of the great weight of the track and timing needed to move it. To coordinate this effort, a crew leader was needed who could recognize the alignment needed, instruct the crew, in verse, what needed to be done, all the while inspiring the crew as much as any preacher. The verses could also relay messages that the foreman couldn't understand.

: : I've got some "roots of the blues" CDs with work songs on them. Good stuff. The only factlet I can add is that Gandy Manufacturing Co. was a Chicago company. ("Herb's Hot Box of Railroad Slang" by J. Herbert Lund.)

: I hate to be a killjoy, but was there really a "Gandy Shovel Company" or "Gandy Manufacturing Company"? Rumor has the company based in Chicago, but nobody has been able to find the name in any Chicago business directory from the late 19th century, and no advertising or shipping crates with the company's name on it have been located.

Sounds like a good research project for someone who lives in Chicago.

Gandy dancer -- "a well known term by 1915 and said by some to have been a hobo term for the hobos and tramps who did such work when they felt like it, it may have been used by railroaders as early as the 1860s. It's from the gooselike, or ganderlike, rhythmic movement of the workers tamping the ties and gravel and straightening rails." From I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated History of American Words and Phrases by Stuart Berg Flexner (Von Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1976).

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