Tuesday, May 9, 2017


Straight Rails, Jamestown, NC

“I don’t know but I’ve been told,” was one of the opening chants for many diverse verses following that iconic line. As our section crew on the Santa Fe Railroad labored under the hot and humid Kansas summer sun, these chants kept us in rhythm as we manually aligned waving railroad tracks out in the boondocks. Every one of the seasoned men and temporary college students such as myself had a favorite line to keep the dance in synch. As we speared our lining gandy into the rail bed ballast, we would put our shoulders into the iron gandy bar and simultaneously shove it into the heavy rail to move it fractions of an inch. Straightening a stretch of track took multiple repetitions and a good caller.

Some say the term “gandy” originated with the workers using iron tools manufactured by the Chicago Gandy Tool Company, while the reference to “dancing” derived from the rhythmic motions associated from the crew moving together with the chants as they aligned tracks or drove spikes in pairs. Our caller would voice the first two lines such as “I don’t know but I’ve been told, Eskimo women are mighty cold.” Then everyone positioned with their gandy would chant the refrain “I don’t know…huh, but I’ve been told…huh, etc. We’d muscle the bars into the rail with each “huh” to get the job done. These calls would range from the racy to the spiritual. Thankfully, these jobs are now all mechanized, but the folklore lives on in such songs as the 1951 song The Gandy Dancer Ball by Frank Laine and the facetious Moose Turd Pie by Utah Phillips that's on YouTube.

Working shoulder to shoulder with the regular crew members that had been on the job for years was quite an incentive to bank my paychecks and return to school the following fall. One of our mates named Lucky was anything but a reflection of his moniker. When our superintendent was notified of an approaching train, we would jump on our hand cars and motor down the rails to a side rail out of harm’s way. Lucky would be the first to bring out the dice and initiate a game until the interrupting train passed. I rolled my number one afternoon just as the train flashed by and he threw the dice away in disgust! Later he calmly told us that his wife had a baby much to their surprise the past winter. But I noticed that he was normally saving his energy when it came time for the “Huh”! I never mentioned it because I knew he would be out here doing this long after I had left.

We’d position our manual hand cars back on the main line and return to our job of lining up tracks, replacing rotting ties, driving spikes to hold the rails down on the ties, raising the rails with ballast and even pumping liquid grout under the rails to bolster the rail bed. But the entertaining job was always lining up the rails with our gandy irons and chanting in unison some ditty like:

“Up and down this road I go,
Skippin’ and dodgin’ a 44.
Hey man won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh,
Hey won’t you line ‘um…huh!

A chance railroad track crossing near downtown Jamestown this afternoon jolted my memory of the brief Gandy Dancer career that I actually enjoyed early in life. The experience kinda reminds me of Paul Newman’s movie character in Cool Hand Luke where he was part of a prison chain gang in the south. Of course, the big difference was that I applied for the job, received a paycheck, and escaped by finishing my college degree!

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