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Johnson City in Carter County, Tennessee — The American South (East South Central)
 

Gandy Dancers

 
 
Gandy Dancers Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Cosmos Mariner, May 15, 2021
1. Gandy Dancers Marker
Inscription.  
"Gandy dancer" is a term that came to be used for the laborers who built and maintained railroad tracks prior to the mechanization of most of those tasks. The origin of the term is uncertain, although some suggest that it referred to the movement of the workers or that it was derived from the name of a Chicago manufacturer of hand tools used on the railroads. Many gandy dancers were African Americans or immigrants, and some states also used convict labor. The work could be quite dangerous, and numerous workers were injured or killed during construction of the railroads. Gandy dancers, especially African Americans, became well known for the work songs and chants that they performed during their labor. Such songs helped make legendary gandy dancer John Henry a major American folk hero, alongside such icons as Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett. Although there is no definitive proof that John Henry was a real person, some scholars have argued that the legend was based on a gandy dancer who helped to construct either the Big Bend Tunnel (WV), the Lewis Tunnel (VA), or the Oak Hill Tunnel (AL), among others. As railroad work songs were freely shared
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and adapted, they exerted an important influence on a number of American musical traditions, including gospel, blues, old time, country, bluegrass, and folk music. In 1973, East Tennessee State University professors Thomas Burton and Jack Schrader produced a documentary film on railroad workers in this area, entitled Gandy Dancers (this film is held in the ETSU Archives of Appalachia and can be viewed online).
—Department of Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University
 
Erected by Department of Appalachian Studies, East Tennessee State University.
 
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African AmericansArts, Letters, MusicRailroads & Streetcars.
 
Location. 36° 18.595′ N, 82° 17.924′ W. Marker is in Johnson City, Tennessee, in Carter County. Marker can be reached from the intersection of Greenlee Road and Cedar Grove Road, on the right when traveling north. Marker is located on the Tweetsie Trail, ¼ mile east of Greenlee Road. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Johnson City TN 37601, United States of America. Touch for directions.
 
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 2 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. The Tennessee Tweetsie in Hollywood (here, next to this marker); Milligan Depot (approx. 0.3 miles away); Milligan College
Marker detail: A group of workers during construction of the ET&WNC railroad image. Click for full size.
ETSU Archives of Appalachia
2. Marker detail: A group of workers during construction of the ET&WNC railroad
(approx. 0.6 miles away); Cranberry Furnace Company Quarry (approx. 0.6 miles away); Constructing a Mountain Railroad (approx. 0.6 miles away); Hauling Ore from the Cranberry Mine (approx. 0.6 miles away); Williams-Taylor House (approx. 0.9 miles away); The Robertson Home, Site of First Court of Washington County (approx. 1.1 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Johnson City.
 
More about this marker. Access to this marker is via bicycle or foot on the Tweetsie Trail.
 
Also see . . .
1. Gandy dancer (Wikipedia). Though rail tracks were held in place by wooden ties and the mass of the crushed rock beneath them, each pass of a train around a curve would, through centripetal force and vibration, produce a tiny shift in the tracks, requiring that work crews periodically realign the track. For each stroke, a worker would lift his lining bar (gandy) and force it into the ballast to create a fulcrum, then throw himself forward using the bar to check his full weight so the bar would push the rail toward the inside of the curve. (Submitted on October 19, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.)
Marker detail: Gandy dancers at work in the early 1970s image. Click for full size.
ETSU Archives of Appalachia
3. Marker detail: Gandy dancers at work in the early 1970s
A still from the Gandy Dancers documentary film.
 

2. Gandy Dancers 1973 (youtube video). 1973 16mm film by Jack Schrader and Tom Burton that features field recordings of work chants of Gandy Dancers including aligning songs and chants to knock out slack in the rail. Shot with a 16mm Bolex camera without sync sound, the visual shows men working with cross ties, aligning the track, and spiking. (Submitted on October 19, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 
 
Marker detail: Gandy dancers posing with a handcar image. Click for full size.
ETSU Archives of Appalachia
4. Marker detail: Gandy dancers posing with a handcar
Marker detail: Postage stamp honoring legendary gandy dancer<br>John Henry image. Click for full size.
Courtesy U.S. Postal Service
5. Marker detail: Postage stamp honoring legendary gandy dancer
John Henry
Gandy Dancers Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Cosmos Mariner, May 15, 2021
6. Gandy Dancers Marker
(looking west along the Tweetsie Trail • rightmost of two markers at this location)
 
 
Credits. This page was last revised on October 19, 2021. It was originally submitted on October 19, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 280 times since then and 18 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on October 19, 2021, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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Feb. 26, 2024