Someone suggested that Suss Müsik repost our contributions to the weekly Disquiet Junto projects, because they enjoy reading the explanations of the tracks. While you’re reading the original post, make sure you check out the other contributors’ works as well.
In his excellent book The New Analog, Damon Krukowski suggests that listening to a quadraphonic recording is a simulacrum of the geocentric model proposed by Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy in 150 (CE). Ptolemaic cosmology assumed that the Earth was a stationary object situated at the center of the universe, and that other heavenly bodies traveled uniformly in a perfectly circular motion around it.
A different stereophonic geometry can be observed in “gandy dancers,” a nickname given to African American railroad workers in the 1920’s. Their job was to maintain and repair miles of railways in the segregated US south: replacing rotted cross-ties, refilling ballast, locking pieces of track into place, and straightening and leveling the lines to ensure safe train passage. The workers were known for their synchronized, graceful ballet that required strength and agility.
An important aspect of railway work was the transport and installation of heavy steel rails lining both sides of the track, a process called “dogging” in which a lead workman served as the “caller” or “call man.” The caller would sing a four-beat song to mark time, and the rest of the crew would follow in rhythm, working shoulder-to-shoulder in pairs. As they tamped the ballast under ties raised with square-ended picks, the workers engaged in call-and-response to ensure that all tasks were executed safely and correctly.
For this week’s project, Suss Müsik took inspiration from a 1939 field recording* of Zora Neale Hurston singing a traditional railroad “spiking” tune. A pair of percussion “lines” represent two sides of railroad track, each treated with glitched stereo delay in opposite left-right channels. A synthesized melody accompanies the lyric, which was passed down from a Jacksonville caller named Max Ford. The hammers heard in the original were intended to replicate the sound of spikes being driven into cross-ties, and they’re faithfully included here with bidirectional panning.
The piece is titled Gandy Dancing and is presented in honor of those who risked physical safety to produce not only infrastructure, but also a rich cultural legacy. May we celebrate their voices heard softly in the thick southern humidity, the kudzu creeping slowly onto the railway edges.
Learn more about gandy dancers from this fascinating Folkstreams documentary.
*Citation: Kennedy, Stetson, Herbert Halpert, Zora Neale Hurston, Herbert Halpert, and Zora Neale Hurston. Dat Old Black Gal. Jacksonville, Florida, 1939. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/flwpa000005/