Monday, October 22, 2012

Early Versions Of "Can't You Line' Em" ("Linin' Track")

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is Part I of a two part series on the African American work song "Can't You Line' em ("Linin' Track", "Tie-Shuffling Chant"). This post showcases three early text versions of "Can't You Line 'em".

For background purposes, this post also provides information & comments about the traditional way that this song was performed.

This post is not meant to be a comprehensive presentation of all early versions of this song.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II of this series features a YouTube sound file of several lining track songs as performed by former Gandy Dancers. That sound file includes video of a re-enactment of lining track as well as photographs of lining and video clips of a re-enactment of lining track.

Part II of this series also showcases one sound file & transcription of a version of that song as performed by Blues/Folk artist "Leadbelly, and three renditions of the song "Linin' Track" as performed by contemporary vocalists & musicians. My transcriptions of those songs as performed by those contemporary artists are also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Gandy dancer is a slang term used for early railroad workers who laid and maintained railroad tracks in the years before the work was done by machines.

...most sources refer to gandy dancers as the men who did the difficult physical work of track maintenance under the direction of an overseer.

There are various theories about the derivation of the term, but most refer to the "dancing" movements of the workers using a specially manufactured 5-foot (1.52 m) "lining" bar (which may have come to be called a "gandy") as a lever to keep the tracks in alignment...

Though all gandy dancers sang railroad songs, it may be that black gandy dancers, with a long tradition of using song to coordinate work, were unique in their use of task-related work chants.

Rhythm was necessary both to synchronize the manual labor, and to maintain the morale of workers..."
It should be noted that all Gandy Dancers weren't African American, and all Gandy Dancers-African American or otherwise-weren't prison inmates.

Here's a contemporary article which provides information about Gandy Dancers:
From [volume 3, issue 11] May 31, 2007 program the Manassas Railway Festival, Virginia Railway Express Update
"This year, a special performance by the Birmingham Lining Bar Gang will also be offered, featuring a group of re-enactors who demonstrate the way railroad tracks were aligned and maintained before the advent of mechanized devices in the 1950s and ’60s. In demonstrating track-lining, one group member serves as a “caller”, offering a two-line rhyme in a loud, clear voice that serves to synchronize the movement of other members so that each heaves with his iron lining bar at the same moment. These calls, which “helped the hard work go easy” according to a retired worker and former caller, served an indispensable function by uniting men’s efforts and easing their minds."

FEATURED LYRICS OF CAN'T YOU LINE' EM (includes other titles of that song)
(These versions are posted in chronological order with the earliest examples posted first)

VERSION #1 [excerpt]
(John 'Black Sampson' Gibson in 1933 and other African American male inmates)

Leader: Ho, boys, is you right?
Gang: I done got right!
Leader: If I could I sholy would, [sholy = surely]
Stand on de rock where Moses stood.

Chorus: Ho, boys, cancha line ‘em? [cancha = can you]
Ho, boys, cancha line ‘em?
Ho, boys, cancha line ‘em?
See Eloise go linin’ track.
From American Ballads and Folk Songs(Dover Books on Music, John A. Lomax (Author), Alan Lomax (Author)
Publication Date: October 21, 1994 | Series: Dover Books on Music , pps 14, 15 [Google books]
Note: Other verses from John "Black Sampson" Gibson's rendition and other renditions are found on those pages.]
Comments about the lines "Is you right?"/ Done got right:
One interpretation of the line "Is you right?" is the religious meaning of "Are you right [with the Lord]?" or "Are you living right?" (according to the church's religious beliefs & tenets. In those interpretations, the word "right" means righteous". "I done got right" means "I've gotten right" (I'm living the right way now although in the past I wasn't.) That interpretation is based on this Biblical scripture:
"New American Standard Bible (©1995)
"You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God."
-Acts 8:21"

The Christian hymn "Is Your Heart Right With God" was composed in 1899 by Elisha Albright Hoffman Pennsylvania (a native of Pennsylvania, USA). Beginning in 1921 that song has been included in various Christian hymnals.

Notice that the "Linin' Track" song includes religious verses mixed with secular verses. It's very likely that the "...your heart is not right with God" Biblical verse was known to the African American men who composed the "Linin Track" song.

As an aside, I recall singing "Is Your Heart Right With God" in my New Jersey African American Baptist church from the 1950s on. And judging from its mention on the Internet, it appears that this song is still sung today in American Christian churches and in Christian churches elsewhere.

In contrast, I didn't become familiar with the song "Linin' Track" until this year as a result of surfing YouTube.
"surfing YouTube = somewhat randomly clicking on videos and sound files of specific subject/s]

Comment about the name "Eloise" in the "Linin' Track" song:
I belong to the school of thought that believes that the line "See Eloise go linin track" was a mishearing of the line "See how wese go linin' track". I believe that in standard American English that line is "See how we are lining [railroad] track."

One alternative theory which originated with a spoken introduction by Blues & Folk artist Leadbelly in one or several (but not all) of his performances of "Linin' Track" was that a female named "Ella Louise" was the one who first led laborers who sung this song. Given that there weren't any female gandy dancers, I very much doubt Leadbelly's story about why the female name "Eloise" is found in that song.

Additional comments about the name "Eloise" in the "Linin' Track" song are found in the entry for Leadbelly in Part II of this series. Also, hyperlinks to Mudcat discussion forum "threads" (series of comments) on the meaning of "Eloise" in this song are found below in the "Related Links" section.

("sung by Allen Prothero, (a railroad man) State Penn. Nashville. Tenn 1933")

Hey, boys joint ahead
I'm gonna tell something now
Oh, all I want, my navy beans
A big fat woman & a wheeler team

Hi,hi.won't you line em
Hi, hi won't you line em
Ho, ho won't you line em
See Eloise go lining track
Collected by John & Allan Lomax and included in their book Railroad Songs & Ballads reposted from "Lyr Req: Who was Eloise in Leadbelly's Linin'" by Barry Finn, Date: 13 Apr 03 - 03:01 PM
Notice that there's no phrase such as "trackalack" at the end of this version's chorus lines. Nor is there any such phrase in Version #1. I wonder if that phrase wasn't sung or if the Lomaxes didn't think it was important enough to include. The "trackalack" (or similar sounding phrase) is also often omitted from online lyrics that I've read for this song. That’s unfortunate because that phrase is a crucial part of the song as it was actually performed by Gandy Dancers, a referent for railroad workers who lined track, most of whom were African Americans.

(Sung by Henry Hankins at Tuscumbia Alabama, 1939)

I. God told Noah about the rainbow sign,
No more water but a fire next time.
Hey boys, can't you line,
hey boys, just a hair,
Hey boys, can't you line,
hey boys, just a hair.
All right, we're mavin' on up the joint ahead.

2. Capt'n keep a-holletin' 'bout the joint ahead,
Ain't said notbin' about the hog and bread.
Hey boys, can't you linc, hey boys, just a hair,
Ho boys, line them over, hey boys, just a hair.

Better move it on down to the center head.

3. Capt'n keep a-hollerin' about the joint ahead,
Ain't said nothin' 'bout the bowl and bread.
Hey boys, can't you line, hey boys, just a hair,
Ho boys, line them over, hey boys, just a hair.
0l’ soul, let's move ahead children.
All right, is you right? Yes we're right.

4. Gone to town, gain' to hurry back,
See Corinna when she ball the jack.
Hey boys, can't you line, hey boys, just a hair.

5. All right, Capt'n keep a-hollerin' about the joint ahead.
All right, children will you move?
Move on down 0l' soul,
Is you right children? Yes we're right.

6. Gain' to town, gonna hurry back,
See Corinna when she ball the jack.
Hey boys, can't you line, ho boys, just a hair
[These lyrics and the comments that follow are reposted as they are found in that pdf]
Song -A-4
Sung by Henry Hankins at Tuscumbia Alabama, 1939 recorded by Hebert Halpert

"Fortunately, Negro construction railroad songs are well known through recordings and print collections. The building of any roadbed section involved myriad skills: timber failing, brushing, blasting, grading, tie and steel unloading, track laying and lining, spike driving, tie tamping. Each detailed function called for a characteristic rhythm that drew to itself hundreds of floating lyrics. Henry Hankins' "Lining Track," which mentions the Biblical Noah as well as a worldly Corinna, is but one example of hundreds of Library of Congress field recordings for this gente. Excellent analogs by Henry Truvillion are found on LC recordings L8 and L52. A reoent article by Ambrose Manning leads to earlier readings. I cite but two commercial 78 rpm discs to note material which preceded field recordings.

Texas Alexander, "Section Gang Blues," Okeh 8498.
T.C.1. Section Crew, "Track Linin'," Paramount 12478.
Ambrose Manning, "Railroad Work Songs," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, 32:41-47 (June 1966).
"just a hair" might mean "just a little bit" and/or it might have been a phrase that served the same purpose as the "trackalack", "rackalack", or other such phrases at the end of lines in the chorus of other versions of this song.
Ol’ = old
ball that jack = the name of an African American originated Blues dance

The words to a 1927 recording of "Track Linin'" by an African American choral group are found on page 646 of the book Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong (2d ed.) by By Norm Cohen. [Google books]

Additional lyrics for "Can't You Line 'em" ("Linin' Track") are found in "Eloise?" That same post includes other theories about the meaning of the female name "Eloise" in that song.

Other Mudcat threads that provide lyrics and comments about the name "Eloise" in that song are
"Who was Eloise in Leadbelly's Linin' Track?" and " Lyr Add: Linin' Track

Thanks to all who composed this song, and thanks to the early performers of this song - those featured here and others. My thanks also to John & Allan Lomax for collecting & recording this song. And thanks to all those whose comments & transcriptions I reposted.

Finally, thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. I had no idea this is where the song Hangman Jury originated from. Very interesting.

    1. You're welcome, Anonymous.

      I had to Google the song that you referred to. I learned that Hangman Jury was recorded by Aerosmith. And yes, the lyrics show that that song is based on the African American linin track songs.