Before the 1950s, all railroad tracks in the U.S. were laid and maintained by hand labor. In the segregated South, this work was mainly done by black men.
The section crews responsible for maintaining the tracks were sometimes known as gandy dancers, probably because of the coordinated rhythmic movements required for repositioning tracks that had become misaligned. They synchronized their movements with call-and-response singing of improvised couplets and stock refrains.
The tradition is documented in Gandy dancers by Maggie Holtzberg and Barry Dornfeld (Cinema Guild, 1994). Below, the trailer for the film; the complete 30-minute film can be viewed here.
Jane Keefer’s Folk music index is a database of U.S. old-time recordings that can be searched by title, recording, keyword, or publisher.
Cross references to alternate titles, related pieces, and similar melodies constitute around 18% of the nearly 39,000 titles in the title index. The recordings indexed generally have a major emphasis on tradition-based material from both commercial and non-commercial performers, including a considerable amount of old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.
Although most of the recordings included are LPs, many have been reissued as cassettes and CDs.
Below, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers play Soldier’s joy in 1929—with a little help from some friends.
Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections is a multiformat ethnographic field collection documenting traditional cultures throughout Florida in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This free online resource is part of the Library of Congress American Memory series.
Undertaken in conjunction with the Florida Federal Writers’ Project, the Florida Music Project, and the Joint Committee on Folk Arts of the Work Projects Administration, the collection features folk songs and folktales in many languages, including blues and work songs from fishing boats, railroad gangs, and turpentine camps; children’s songs, dance music, and religious music of many cultures; and oral histories.
The website provides access to 376 sound recordings and 106 accompanying materials, including recording logs, transcriptions, correspondence between Florida WPA workers and Library of Congress personnel, and an essay on Florida folklife by Zora Neale Hurston (inset). A new essay by Stetson Kennedy reflects on the labor and the legacy of the WPA in Florida, and an extensive bibliography, a list of related Web sites, and a guide to the ethnic and language groups of Florida add further context to the New Deal era and to Florida culture.
Above, construction workers gathered around the stove in the craftsmen’s barracks at Camp Blanding, Florida, in 1940.