Alabama Folkways Articles

August, 1996

Alabama Worksong Singers Receive Highest Folk Arts Honor

by Anne Kimzey

African-American railroad worksong singers John Mealing and Cornelius Wright, Jr. of Birmingham, have been named 1996 recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowships, the government's highest honor in folk and traditional arts. The fellowships include a one-time award of $10,000.

According to Jane Alexander, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, "These masters and guardians of folk and traditional arts ensure that America's unique cultural legacy is celebrated and preserved for our children and future generations. Through the National Heritage Fellowships, we honor those exceptional artists for their creativity, innovation and perseverance in revitalizing traditions built by countless others."

The African-American musical legacy includes a rich worksong tradition. One of these traditions is that of the railroad "gandy dancers." Gandy dancers (from the Chicago-based Gandy Manufacturing Company, maker of railroad tools, and the "dancing" (movements of the workers using them) were those men teamed in groups of 8 to 14 whose responsibility it was to lay or care for the tracks of the southern railroads.

Railroad veterans John Mealing and Cornelius Wright, Jr. have kept their songs and the stories of the life that went with them alive in festivals and other public events in the Deep South and through the public television production "Gandy Dancers."

Prior to the 1960s, the 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. Different songs and tempos were for different jobs-lancing calls to coordinate the dragging of 39-foot rails; slower speech-like "dogging" calls to direct the picking up and manipulating of the steel rails; more rhythmic songs for spiking the rails, tamping the bed of gravel beneath them, or lining the rails with long iron crowbars. 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.

John Mealing and Cornelius Wright, Jr. see the importance of keeping the memory of their tradition alive as long as possible. In the words of Mr. Wright, it shows how "songs, strength and coordination were able to claim victory over seemingly insurmountable odds and tasks."