The Gandy Dancers were a group of retired railway workers who gave railway laying demonstrations to educate the public about the culture surrounding the industry. Based out of Birmingham, Alabama, and led by Cornelius Wright Jr., the Gandy Dancers consisted of John Henry Mealing, Allen Jones, Charlie Vinson and Elder Brown Jr. Each member possessed an extensive repertoire of track-lining songs, learned over decades of laying and maintaining tracks in the years before the work was mechanized in the 1950s.
The term “gandy dancer” is allegedly a combination of the name of Chicago-based Gandy Manufacturing Company, a maker of track-lining tools, and the description of the railway workers’ dancelike movements. The workers were synchronized by a caller who sang songs and chants, which boosted morale and helped the workers keep in rhythm with one another. The subject matter of these work songs could range from bawdy to Biblical, depending on whether the crews were in the cut or near polite society. Wright and Mealing received National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996 for their work with the Gandy Dancers advocating the importance of railroad folklore and traditions in American culture.