Gandy dancer is a slang term used for early railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines. The British equivalents of the term gandy dancer are "navvy" (from "navigator"), originally builders of canals or "inland navigations", for builders of railway lines, and "platelayer" for workers employed to inspect and maintain the track. In the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, Mexican and Mexican-American track workers were colloquially "traqueros".
In some texts, the term is described as specific to those workers who built the track. One text states that "layers of railroad track are hardly ever called gandy dancers," asserting, rather, that the job of the gandy dancer refers to "track examiners", ascribing their responsibilities as "checking ties, bolts, track, and roadbed for necessary repairs." However, most sources refer to gandy dancers as the men who did the difficult physical work of track maintenance under the direction of an overseer.
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 (1.52 m) "lining" bar (which may have come to be called a "gandy") as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment.
The term has an uncertain origin. A majority of early railway workers were Irish, so an Irish or Gaelic derivation for the English term seems possible. According to writer Daniel Cassidy, the word "gandy" is associated with the sound of the Gaelic word "cinnte", which may be translated as "constant". However, the term gandy sounds nothing like cinnte, and Daniel Cassidy is regarded with derision by genuine linguists.
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; or, speculatively, as they waddled like ganders while running on the railroad ties.
Some have identified a "Gandy Shovel Company" or, variously, "Gandy Manufacturing Company" or "Gandy Tool Company" reputed to have existed in Chicago as the possible source of the tools from which gandy dancers took their name. Some sources even list the goods manufactured by the company, i.e., "tamping bars, claw bars, picks, and shovels." Others have cast doubt on the existence of such a company.
Though rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties (sleepers outside the U.S.) and the mass of the crushed rock (ballast) beneath them, each pass of a train around a curve would, through centripetal force and vibration, produce a tiny shift in the tracks. If allowed to accumulate, such shifts could eventually cause a derailment, requiring that work crews periodically realign the track.
For each stroke, a worker would lift his lining bar (gandy) and force it into the ballast to create a fulcrum, then throw himself forward using the bar to check his full weight (making the "huh" sound recorded in the lyrics below) so the bar would push the rail toward the inside of the curve.
The process is explained at the Encyclopedia Alabama folklore section:
"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."
Workers also needed to periodically level the track by jacking it up in the low spots. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they raised the track with square-ended picks and pushed ballast under the railroad ties. Even with repeated impacts from the work crew of eight, ten, or more, any progress made in shifting the track would not become visible until after a large number of repetitions. 
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. The same ground crews also performed the other aspects of track maintenance, such as removing weeds, unloading ties and rails, and replacing worn rails and rotten ties. The work was extremely difficult and the pay was low, but it was one of the only jobs available for southern black men and newly arriving immigrants at that time. Black men working on the railroad were held in high esteem among their peers. There’s a blues song that says "when you marry, marry a railroad man, every day Sunday, a dollar in your hand."
In 1918, in an article for Harper's Magazine about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Robert W. Bruere explained the economic circumstances that sometimes drove gandy dancers and other itinerant workers to join that organization:
The division superintendent of a great Western railroad recently explained to me his reluctant part in the creation of the socially disintegrating conditions out of which the migratory workers and the rebellious propaganda of the I. W. W. have sprung. "The men down East," he said, "the men who have invested their money in our road, measure our administrative efficiency by money return—by net earnings and dividends. Many of our shareholders have never seen the country our road was built to serve; they get their impression of it and of its people, not from living contact with men, but from the impersonal ticker. They judge us by quotations and the balance-sheet. The upshot is that we have to keep expenses cut close as a jailbird's hair. Take such a detail as the maintenance of ways, for example—the upkeep of tracks and road-beds. This work should be going on during the greater part of the year. But to keep costs down, we have crowded it into four months. It is impossible to get the number and quality of men we need by the offer of a four months' job. So we publish advertisements broadcast that read something like this:
"We know when we put our money into these advertisements that they are— well, part of a pernicious system of sabotage. We know that we are not going to give permanent employment. But we lure men with false promises, and they come. At the end of four months we lay them off, strangers in a strange country, many of them thousands of miles from their old homes. We wash our hands of them. They come with golden dreams, expecting in many cases to build homes, rear families, become substantial American citizens. After a few weeks, their savings gone, the single men grow restless and start moving; a few weeks more and the married men bid their families good-by. They take to the road hunting for jobs, planning to send for their families when they find steady work. Some of them swing onto the freight-trains and beat their way to the nearest town, are broke when they get there, find the labor market oversupplied, and, as likely as not, are thrown into jail as vagrants. Some of them hit the trail for the woods, the ranches, and the mines. Many of them never find a stable anchorage again; they become hobos, vagabonds, wayfarers—migratory and intermittent workers, outcasts from society and the industrial machine, ripe for the denationalized fellowship of the I. W. W."
Bruere concluded, "[t]his is a small but characteristic example of a vast system of human exploitation that has been developed by the powerful suction of our headlong industrial expansion..." Black historian and journalist Thomas Fleming began his career as a bellhop and then spent five years as a cook for the Southern Pacific Railroad. In a weekly series of articles he wrote of his memories of the Mexican section hands in the 1920s and 30s. He recalled that the Southern Pacific gave them a place to sleep: old boxcars converted into two-room cabins. The company would take old boxcars, remove the wheels, and lay them alongside the tracks. He remembers that the workers had a lot of children who attended the public schools, but the ones he met during his childhood were "kind of meek, and took a lot of abuse from the other kids". Fleming says that "you found them right outside of all towns in California; that was part of the landscape." He suggests that they may have been the only ones who were willing to do the job because they got the lowest pay of any railroad workers, only about $40 a month.
Michael Quinion identified the first known (printed) use of the term gandy dancer as 1918, but with so little understanding of the origin of the term it is impossible to know when it came into being. An article in the May 1918 edition of the weekly publication The Outlook (New York) asks the question, "What is a "gandy dancer"?" Using the exact words from the publication:
A story published in the August 1931 edition of Boys' Life, a monthly magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America for boys 6 to 18, mentions the term "gandy". In the story, "Eddie Parker", about 17 or 18 years old and characterized as the all-American type, takes on a job as a worker in a railway section crew. His new co-workers are all Italian immigrants, or, as referred to in the story, "snipes". The "snipes" are characterized as lazy, stupid, and lovers of garlic, olive oil, and Italian music - certainly very prejudicial by today's standards, but an illuminating look into America's past. As the story goes, Eddie figures a way to get the "lazy" Italians to work at pumping the hand car (used to get to and from the section the crew would be working on that day) by using their love of music. He explains that he "hooked a grind organ onto the under frame and attached the handle to the axle crank..,[and] whenever the axel turns the handle has to follow it". Interestingly, in this story the workers are referred to as section crew workers, but the hand-car is referred to as a "gandy".
In the 1960s Maintenance of Way laborers were still being called "gandy dancers" by the track foremen in Oregon, and the tamping rod was called a "gandy pole" by most workers or simply a "gandy".
While most southern railroad maintenance workers were African American, gandy dancers were not strictly southern or African American. 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. The Chinese, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans in the West, the Irish in the Midwest, and East Europeans and Italians in the Northeast laid and maintained track as well. Though all gandy dancers sang railroad songs, it may be that black gandy dancers, with a long tradition of using song to coordinate work, were unique in their use of task-related work chants.
Rhythm was necessary both to synchronize the manual labor, and to maintain the morale of workers. Work songs and hollers sung in a call-and-response format were used to coordinate the various aspects of all rail maintenance; slower speech-like "dogging" calls to direct the picking up and manipulating of the steel rails and unloading, hauling and stacking of the ties, and more rhythmic songs for spiking and lining (aligning) the rails and tamping the bed of ballast beneath them.
In 1939 John Lomax recorded a number of railroad songs which contain an example of an "unloading steel rails" call, and it is available at the American Memory site. The Lead Belly song "Take This Hammer" (available on YouTube) may be based on railroad chants.
There is no doubt that country singer Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by the working songs of the gandy dancers. His father, a section foreman in Meredian, Mississippi, brought his son with him to work as a water boy where he would have been exposed to their musical chants. Rodgers went on to be known as the "Singing Brakeman" and the Father of Country Music.
Anne Kimzey of the Alabama Center For Traditional Culture writes: "All-black gandy dancer crews used songs and chants as tools to help accomplish specific tasks and to send coded messages to each other so as not to be understood by the foreman and others. The lead singer, or caller, would chant to his crew, for example, to realign a rail to a certain position. His purpose was to uplift his crew, both physically and emotionally, while seeing to the coordination of the work at hand. It took a skilled, sensitive caller to raise the right chant to fit the task at hand and the mood of the men. Using tonal boundaries and 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. Here is a vintage gandy dancer video which demonstrates the singing, the dancing-like rhythm, the lining tool, and a very large crew (note that the ballast has been removed, perhaps allowing a much greater movement of the track than most sources mention): 
In 1994, folklorist Maggie Holtzberg, working as a folklore fieldworker to document traditional folk music in Alabama, produced a documentary film Gandy Dancers. Holtzberg relates,
It had been many years since modern machinery had replaced section crews, so Holtzberg spoke with older or retired roadmasters who might remember the callers, or know where they might be living. She managed to locate a number of callers and interviewed them in their homes. However, the men found it difficult to call track in their living room as opposed to being out on the track with the sound of rapping lining bars to call against. They met at a nearby railroad club that was rebuilding a depot museum. In this familiar environment the men quickly began to remember the old calls, and especially so when a train passed by blowing its whistle. Holtzberg recalls the words of John Cole, at 82 the oldest of the men:
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. An example:
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.
Retired gandy dancer John Cole explained spike driving songs in the documentary Gandy Dancers.
In 1996 two former callers, John Henry Mealing and Cornelius Wright, received National Heritage Fellowship awards as "Master Folk and Traditional Artists" for their demonstrations of this form of African-American folk art.
"The Gandy Dancers' Ball" is a song recorded by Frankie Laine in 1951, but with gandy dancers as actual dancers at a railroad workers' ball. Laine sang it with a chorus of dancers in the 1955 comedy film Bring Your Smile Along.
Singer/political activist Bruce "Utah" Phillips, in Moose Turd Pie, told a tall tale of working as a gandy dancer in the American southwest. Phillips ascribed the source of the workers' shovels to the possibly mythical Gandy Shovel Company of Chicago.
The Gandy Dancer State Trail is a 47-mile rail trail for hiking, biking and other recreational uses, that follows the old Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie railroad grade from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, through a bit of eastern Minnesota and terminating in Superior Wisconsin.
A scene from the 1985 film, "The Color Purple", features a caller directing a railroad maintenance crew.
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