Autoharp virtuoso Bryan Bowers revives a lost art form

Nov 17, 1999 at 4:00 am
I'm not allowed to run the train/The whistle I can't blow/I'm not allowed to say how fast/the railroad train can go/I'm not allowed to shoot off steam/nor can I clang the bell/but let the damned train jump the track/and see who catches hell.

So went an example of the call-and-response singing of the gandy dancers, railroad workers responsible in a bygone era for keeping tracks straight by "lining them up" with sledgehammers. They sang as they swung, together in perfect rhythm, filling the days of hard labor with memorable, useful chants. The African-American gandy dancers sang chants about Jesus, tall tales of lewdness, coded gripes about the mean bosses and mean life on the railroad.

Gandy was the company that made the men's hammers and other tools, and the dance was the spectacle of their regular pounding and calling. As a boy growing up in Yorktown and New Bohemia, Va., Bryan Bowers went near the tracks and was instantly enraptured.

"The perfect synchronization of their swings with the heavy sledges as they called back answer lines to the call line was mesmerizing," he says. "I'd sit on the railroad tracks to watch and sing and swing my imaginary sledgehammer as they slowly worked their way down the track."

Bowers married his fascination with the gandy dancers to his love of the autoharp, an instrument seldom seen or heard. Cradling the harp next to his head as if burping a baby, Bowers strums and sings. He uses all five fingers to pick 36 closely arranged strings, playing rhythm, melody and plenty more at the same time. He performs folk and bluegrass standards and originals, and the occasional gandy-dance call-and-response chant. He is considered the leading virtuoso of the instrument.

Bowers dropped out of college to pursue music and gradually moved from playing in the streets for change to bars to the bluegrass circuit. He is known as much for his warmth and storytelling talent as for his mastery of the autoharp. You may not want to miss this practitioner of a dead but stirring art form.

Bryan Bowers performs at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 19, at the Focal Point, 8158 Big Bend Blvd. Call Music Folk at 961-2838 for tickets.