Music as Labour Technology – Gandy Dancers 1973

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 visuals shows men working with cross ties, aligning the track, and spiking.  The film focuses on the changes brought about by mechanization of railroad building. The film is part of the Burton Schrader collection in East Tennessee State University, ?Archives of Appalachia. A digital beta copy is in the Folkstreams archive in the Southern Folklife Collection in Chapel Hill.

The timing when the two men strike the spike into the rail with such rhythmic precision is immensely impressive. I like the closeups of their faces too, showing so much dirt and sweat, and how that contrasts with their highly technical hammering in time with music. Un-skilled labour this would be categorised as, but watching them hammer with such timing and precision (a commenter calls it “windmilling style” which is a great name for it) is just incredible.