Make your own free website on Tripod.com
My Personal Site
Home | GANDY DANCERS AND RAPPERS | Challenging Authority | CORPORAL PUNISHMENT | Does the observer affect the observed? | Dysgenics and Eugenics | EBONICS | LAUGHTER | RACIAL PROFILING | Remarks of Rev. Joseph Lowery at the funeral of Coretta S. King | FACTS & MYTHS | OLD BLACK SAYINGS | About Me | Favorite Links | Contact Me








GANDY DANCERS AND RAPPERS

Enter subhead content here

rappers.jpg.w300h300.jpeg

gandys.jpeg

When we look at the musical traditions of African-Americans we understand that there is a long tradition of music presentation, which predates our arrival to the Western hemisphere. Two of the most enduring traditions are those of "call and response" and "work songs". In call and response, there is a leader who establishes the melody and beat. The rest of the participants take their cue from the leader. As the length of the presentation progresses, the group may embellish upon what the leader has started. There is a point/counterpoint element embodied in the singing. Many of the traditional "Negro spirituals" have elements of call and response. There is a democratic participation, which takes place when this type of musical presentation is performed. Each singer has an equal role in the music and is indispensable in the overall quality of the performance.

Much of the economy in Africa before the transatlantic slave trade was agrarian or agricultural. In the planting and harvesting of crops, workers broke the monotony of tasks by raising their voices in song. The melodies were performed many times in the aforementioned call and response style. The basic structure survived in the new world with a subtle difference. Since slavery was involuntary and the normal lines of free flowing conversation between slaves were frowned upon by the slave owner class, slaves were able to subvert the normal lines of communication into a coded, subterranean conversation, with double meanings and intent. Thus the song "Steal away to Jesus", among other songs, became a signal to the learned ear that an escape was in the offing. And even when the song content held no double entendre, music continued to be a communal, participatory activity that helped anesthetize the harshness of the surroundings and make the drudgery of existence less so.

It is in this vein, that of being a palliative against the harshness of daily living, that the music of the railroad gandy dancers and the modern day rappers share a common effect. The gandy dancers worked under harsh conditions on railroad gangs and were isolated for periods of time from the general population. The work was oppressive and monotonous. Perhaps some genetic retention held sway as they began to follow a musical style of call and response, which had been practiced within the race for generations, and now found practicality in their particular reality. This societal isolation and marginalization is also common to the experience of inner city urban youth who crated the form of musical expression called rap or hip-hop. Being outside of formal methods of musical expression such as music lessons and instruments, rappers used the human voice or "human beat box" to express themselves. Both gandy dancers and rappers relied on no external instrumentation. Instead they used their vocalizations to approximate the sounds of instruments and other natural phenomena in their environment, be it a train, a bass guitar, a woman, or the "boss".

There is an African-American oral tradition of the "trickster" and the "boaster:", which dates back to Africa,.{See the Uncle Remus tales, Dolomite, Shaft, Superfly, etc). In this tradition, the protagonist either oversells or exaggerates his abilities, or either thru trickery or mother wit, overcomes a difficult situation. Both gandy dancers and rappers present themselves in song as supercharged ladies men, whose charm seduces all comers. They each speak in a coded language that ingratiates themselves to other true believers all the while "getting over" on the "man" who is the source of much of their discomfort.

The differences in the effect that the musical styles of gandy dancers and rappers have can be explained in the age at which each plied their individual crafts. Gandy dancers’ songs were produced during the industrial age of this country circa the late 1880’s thru the 1940’s possibly. The national media was less pervasive then than it is today. The gandy dancers’ style and influence was somewhat esoteric and limited to anthologists and musicologists of the time. With the explosion of exposure during this "information age", rappers perform on a much larger stage. They constitute a dominant demographic in the entertainment field and are cultural phenomena. Rap is an art form practiced primarily by African-American youth, yet it is patronized, in sales figures, by white youth. Part of the attraction to white youth is vicarious. In other words, rap music gives them an opportunity to do a "drive by" on inner city black experience without having to pay the true cost, other than the price of the CD. Just as the gandy dancers did, rappers do their thing in a stylish, coded, avant-garde type of way. The difference today is that all media forms, including rap are mass-produced, recorded and can be dissected bit by computer bit. This enables the listener to study and decode the subliminal message of the product in much greater detail than ever before. Also, in today’s society there has been a breakdown in human relations, good manners, and respect that arguably didn’t exist at the time that gandy dancers were on the scene. This depersonalization is evidenced in music of today. Today’s rappers not only brag about their sexual prowess, to add effect, they minimize women’s virtue at the same time. They not only brag about how they would defend themselves against a worthy adversary, they brag of killing for the fun of it.

Although both musical styles are branches from the same root, the effect has not been the same. One musical style found its purpose in helping to soften the drudgery of the daily wok routine. The other began nobly perhaps, but lost its way along the way to the bank.