The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Singing on the Job

If you look up "train songs" on Wikipedia, you will find a list of hundreds of songs that conjure up the rhythm of the locomotive. The railroad has a rich history of inspiring music. But it may be that it was music that actually kept the railroad alive.

I recently met a fiddler and banjo player who is working on his masters in folk music. He wore a Civil War-style cap. He lives, currently, in Tennessee, "up in the mountains, in a shack," as he described it. "I go down to the valley for work." I thought I detected the mourn of a train whistle in his voice.

He told me about some of his research into folk music and its heritage and culture. With the immense train cars regularly compressing the tracks, the iron rails began to bow over time. Railroad companies hired crews to repair the warped rails by heaving them back into alignment. The men on these crews, he told me, were called "gandy dancers." Among the essential skills for a gandy dancer was a sense of rhythm. Without it, a man simply couldn't have done his job. But rhythm would only get the crew half way. What the men really needed was a song.

Warping a forged steel rail required a lot of power. Those train cars weighed tons. Realigning them could have taken no small amount of effort. Gandy dancers repaired them by hand and as a crew. This they could only do in unison, keeping time to true up the rails. They needed a tempo and a cadence that they could work into together. They achieved this unison with songs.

Music synchronized their motions. And the rails were made true.

Gandy dancers on the railroads weren't the only musclemen singing on the job. Sailors too needed music to synchronize their efforts, my folk musicologist explained. “The Great Lakes region has an equally rich musical history to that of railroads." The heavy canvas sails required numerous men working in concert. Hoisting anchor, likewise, required a similar synchronicity.

Synchronizing the sailors’ pulls were singers called “chanty men” (pronounced like “shanty men”). Chanty men were hired for this one job: to sing songs that would keep time for the sailors raising the sails. Timing was a necessity, and music cleverly synchronized their work.

Another group of hairy-chested singers included lumberjacks, who had their own shanty boys (of another etymology entirely) keeping work on tempo through music.

Singing men like these seem foreign to us and our modern culture, but their memory has not been completely lost. Pop culture retains echoes of them. The Seven Dwarves whistling while they worked hearkens back to time when music synchronized work.

Or think of the raucous German beer gardens keeping time with sloshing mugs. Their forerunners—the local tavern—were likely places where working men intersected and shared their songs. They didn’t talk about work. They sang about it.

Similarly, U.S. slave plantations of the 19th century begat negro spirituals, keeping time for the work in the fields.

More recently, Jack Sparrow and his "yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" recalls the songs of chanty men. Even Pirates needed music. Anarchy didn’t hoist sails.

"The arrival of the steam engine and paddlewheel brought an end to these songs," my folk musicologist told me, touching his cap. There was that train whistle again. The machine made these songs obsolete. These songs had sprouted from a culture to meet the need for synchronized labor. But they had also nurtured that culture and made it a living being. The din and hiss of steam and gears replaced the songs and rhythms of the sea and rail, the forest and the mine. From their perch under the sky where their clarion voices kept time, the ships’ chanty men were buried below deck where their songs turned into clanging pistons.