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'Gandy Dancers' Helped Maintain Peavine RR

Posted Wednesday, December 28, 2011, at 4:27 PM

As a small boy in the Bootheel, I thought they were "chain gang" convicts working on the railroad between Morehouse, Canalou, Parma and Gideon.

But well-read farm neighbor A.J. Neel, informed they were "Gandy Dancers" who worked and chanted in rhythm as they laid and maintained railroad tracks.

Mostly black men, they chanted as they used their heavy sledge hammers and biggo steel pry bars used to lay and/or replace the rails.

After A.J. Neel described the fascinating group of railroad line men, Momma Whittle nearly "freaked out" upon learning I'd gone up on the tracks to not only witness their hard labor and melodiac chanting that went something like this: "I got a girl in New Orleans, Prettiest girl you ever seen."

First Cousin Robert Terry Reed, who like me grew up between Morehouse and Canalou, also remembers the "Gandy Dancers."

"They were fascinating to listen to and watch," recalled cousin Terry. "Later in life, I witnessed chain gangs (convicts) doing similar work, but they didn't sing and chant in rhthym like the black folks who worked in maintenance of the railroads."

The Gandy Dancers, named for a railroad supply house in Chicago, are part of important eonomic history of the Bootheel, in that the railroad, constructed by Cape Girardeau railroad man Louis Houck, opened up the Bootheel swamp counties to logging in the early 1900s, and later, after the swamps were drained, to important agrarian development.

Today, thanks in part to the railroads that ran from Cape Girardea south and from Poplar Bluff east through Dexter, Essex and Gray's Ridge,the Bootheel produces a robust 30 percent of all of Missouri's farm products.

The Gandy Dancers played an important role in our rich Show Me State heritage.

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Good topic! I had never heard of the Gandy dancers! Must check this out. I'm interested in all things Houck.

The chain gang scene in "Oh Brother, Where art Thou?" is one of the most colorful parts of the movie. (no pun intended)

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Dec 29, 2011, at 7:21 AM

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Retired recently as world-traveled newspaperman, career made possible by late Superintendent of Schools Robert L. Rasche, about to have Bootheel life book published by SEMO State University. Loved farm life, but knew at five years old, didn't want to be a "cotton picker" when I grew up.
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