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The Gandy Dancers: And Work Songs From the American Railroad Hardcover – May 1, 2015
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Section gangs were the workers who maintained the railroad tracks doing manual repairs and track switching. They were poorly paid despite the hard work and physical strength required. Around 1918, the term Gandy Dancers was coined in reference to the rail workers who moved tracks and tamped down the earth between the ties. The rails needed constant alignment because wooden ties and spikes were resting on layers of crushed rock. Workers in groups of eight or more, listened to a caller lead chants, and sang these songs to help work in unison slowly making track adjustments to prevent derailments.
Included in this historical gem are the lyrics, music and a brief history of several railroad chants and songs. Alan Lomax, folk historian extraordinaire, was inspired by the Gandy Dancers to write Skip to My Lou! Resources for further study on the Gandy Dancers are presented. Author Vanita Oelschlager explains how modern poets and writers are still influenced today by the chants and work songs from the American Railroad. Thank you Ms. Oelschlager for presenting a window into the Gandy Dancers and their incredible contribution to the railroad and to the music of America.
"Gandy Dancers" were hard-working crews of men who straightened and fixed train track (which shifted every time a train passed, especially around curves) at the grueling pace of 15 miles per day. In order to work quickly and efficiently, they sang songs and chants in order to move the rails in time with the rhythm. Teams of Gandy Dancers were utilized from the 1830's on but were phrased out in the 1950's and replaced with machinery.
This book tells the story of the Gandy Dancers as well as a brief snapshot of the railroad and its various jobs and positions around the turn of the century. Did you know in 1910 almost 1.7 MILLION were employed by the railroads? The book also includes several familiar songs such as "I've Been Working on the Railroad" as well as "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" and "John Henry" - that mighty steel-drivin' man.
The illustrations are lively and full of color and details. There is musical notation included for a few songs - but the notation for "I've Been Working on the Railroad" has an error (a missing G sharp) and is also missing notes in the first line. Also, the author includes the lyrics for "John Brown's Body" and notes that she'll tell the backstory of this song, but instead mentions how Julia Ward Howe used the tune and wrote the lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I had assumed that by "back story" she meant a bit of information about who John Brown was and his historical significance.
I especially enjoyed Vanita Oelschlager's book The Pullman Porter with its lush illustrations and interesting story. While I also enjoyed "The Gandy Dancers" I felt the illustrations were a bit lacking compared to her other book, and I wish someone had looked over the music to make sure it was correctly notated.
I received a copy of this book from the Publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
In 1910, there were about 1.7 million people employed by the railroad. The book briefly explains some of the jobs like brakemen, firemen, pullman porters and others. The main job of the book were the section gangs that worked to keep the tracks straight. One of these groups was known as the Gandy Dancers who sang work songs to help keep them working together. In between refrains, they would call out "huh!" to keep their rhythm and work aligned. There are lyrics to many famous folk songs of the era that the Gandy Dancers might have sung. Songs like Skip To My Lou, I've Been Working on the Railroad, and John Brown's Body among others. The lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic are included. It's always been one of my favorite American songs. The book ends with a list of resources for further information.
Mike Blanc's illustrations are simply wonderful. The book's cover drew me in and I wasn't disappointed. The book tells a story that could be politicized or preachy and it's not. Kudos to Vanita Oelschlager for keeping the story interesting at a kid level. The songs work along with the illustrations. All in all, an interesting non-fiction picture book about a group of hard working Americans.
I received a review copy of this ebook from Vanita Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for allowing me to review this interesting picture book for young readers.
I received a complementary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.