Gandy dancer is a slang term used for early railroad workers, more formally referred to as "section hands", who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. They also performed track maintenance, such as removing weeds, unloading ties and rails, and replacing worn rails and rotten ties.
In the US, early section crews were often made up of recent immigrants and ethnic minorities who vied for steady work despite poor wages and working conditions and hard physical labor. Though all gandy dancers sang railroad songs, it may be that African American gandy dancers from the Southern United States, with a long tradition of using song to coordinate work, were unique in their use of task-related work chants.
There are various theories about the derivation of the term, but most refer to the "dancing" movements of the workers using a specially manufactured 5-foot, 35 pound, lining bar, which came to be called a "gandy", as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment. The term has an uncertain origin. A majority of early northern railway workers were Irish so an Irish or Gaelic derivation for the English term seems possible. Others have suggested that the term gandy dancer was coined to describe the movements of the workers themselves, i.e., the constant "dancing" motion of the track workers as they lunged against their tools in unison to nudge the rails, often timed by a chant; as they carried rails. But most researchers have identified a "Gandy Shovel Company" or, variously, "Gandy Manufacturing Company" or "Gandy Tool Company" reputed to have existed in Chicago as the source of the tools from which gandy dancers took their name. But others have cast doubt on the existence of such a company. The Chicago Historical Society has been asked for information on the company so many times that they have said, "It's like a legend, " but they have never been able to find a Gandy company in their old records.
Encyclopedia Alabama folklore:
"Each workman carried a lining bar, a straight pry bar with a sharp end. The thicker bottom end was square-shafted (to fit against the rail) and shaped to a chisel point (to dig down into the gravel underneath the rail); the lighter top end was rounded (for better gripping). When lining track, each man would face one of the rails and work the chisel end of his lining bar down at an angle into the ballast under it. Then all would take a step toward their rail and pull up and forward on their pry bars to lever the track—rails, crossties and all—over and through the ballast."
As maintenance of way workers, besides lining bars gandy dancers also used special sledge hammers called spike mauls to drive spikes, shovels or ballast forks to move track ballast, large clamps called "rail dogs" to carry rails, and ballast tamper bars or picks to adjust the ballast.
During the early 1940s when the U.S. was involved in the fighting of World War II a few women worked as gandy dancers. During the war years so many of the men were away that the US developed a severe labor shortage and women stepped in to do what, to that time, had been done exclusively by men. A 1988 article in The Valley Gazette carried the story of several local women who had worked on the Reading Railroad in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania as gandy dancers. In an interview one of the women said that it was the money, about $55 ($800-900 in today's dollars) a week, that had attracted her to the job.
All-black gandy dancer crews used songs and chants to help accomplish tasks and to send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. It took a skilled caller to raise the right chant to fit the task at hand and the mood of the men. Using tones and a melodic style typical of the blues, each caller had his own signature.
The effectiveness of a caller to move his men has been likened to how a preacher can move a congregation. Typical songs featured a two-line, four-beat couplet to which members of the gang would tap their lining bars against the rails until the men were in perfect time and then the caller would call for a hard pull on the third beat of a four-beat chant.
Veteran section gangs lining track, especially with an audience, often embellished their work with a one-handed flourish and with one foot stepping out and back on beats four, one, and two, between the two-armed pulls on the lining bars on beat three.
The caller simultaneously motivated and entertained the men and set the timing through work songs that derived distantly from call and response traditions brought from Africa and sea shanties, and more recently from cotton-chopping songs, blues, and African-American church music.
A good caller could go on all day without ever repeating a call. The caller needed to know the best calls to suit a particular crew or occasion. Sometimes calls with a religious theme were used and other times calls that would evoke sexual imagery were in order.
In these calls the men begin to tap their gandy against the rail during the first two lines to get in rhythm and unison. Then with each "huh" grunt the men throw their weight forward on their gandy to slowly bring the rail back into alignment.