‘I’ve been workin’ on the railroad …’
Work on the railroads in the U.S. and you’ll probably hear of the gandy dancer. These were the folks who maintained the tracks. In fact, I’m willing to say, as railroad-heavy as Missouri is and used to be, chances are one or two of you reading this article were probably at one time, gandy dancers.
Gandy dancers remind me so much of the Scripture that we find twice in the writings of Paul, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, “Speak (or sing) to each other, with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” You see, singing was a crucial part of the early gandy dancing,
The gandy dancer’s original job was positioning rails to be nailed to ties. The crew would, as a group, carry the rails straddling them at intervals and reaching between their feet to lift and carry it into place, in the process looking like a line of waddling geese. They became known as ganders and the process as gander dancing, which ultimately transmogrified to gandy dancing.
Though rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties and the mass of the stones, which rail workers call ballast, each time a train would round a corner, this whole construct would shift through centrifugal force and vibration imperceptibly. If allowed to accumulate, such shifts could eventually cause a derailment; work crews had to pry them back into place routinely. (This last statement would definitely preach wouldn’t it?)
For each stroke, a worker would lift his gandy and force it into the ballast as a lever; then he would throw himself sideways using the gandy to check his full weight (making the “huh” sound recorded in the lyrics below) so the gandy would push the rail toward the inside of the curve. Even with all the impacts from the work crew timed correctly, any progress made in shifting the track would not become visible until after a large number of repetitions.
Rhythm was necessary for this process, both to synchronize the manual labor, and to maintain the morale of workers whose exertions produced only a minuscule effect; hence, “gandy dancers.” The songs sung in this occupation have been recognized as a major influence on later blues music; one such song is reproduced below (thanks to “Wikipedia” for the song and the above information, which was corroborated with some other sources.)
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 …
There is a lot of Scripture dedicated to singing to God. But God also gave us the song to lift one another. In the kingdom, the work is heavy and tiring. Many times we can’t even see that our work has any effect on the world. The gandy dancers made miniscule changes in the track, so they cheered one another on in song to keep their spirits up.
A balance in our music is so necessary to lift and exalt the Lord,and to lift the spirits of the bondslaves. This is so reflective of the greatest and the second greatest commandments (Matt. 22:37-40).
No doubt that the Lord loves for us to sing to Him, but there is also room in the kingdom for us to sing to one another, to lift spirits, to spur one another on, to urge one another not to lay our ‘gandies’ down, but to keep at it for the night is coming soon. (John Francis is the worship specialist for the Missouri Baptist Convention and produces MoWorship, a monthly worship podcast available at www.mobaptist.org/worship.)