Any hogs that might have showed up at the Third Annual National (actually International) Hollerin' Contest at Spivey's Corner, N.C., were either lost or on somebody's plate. It is certain they were not called there. No, this hollerin' is a cross between an Indian war cry and sweet country singing, sustained in a long, full-volumed blast akin to a yodel. It is the revival of an old East Carolina custom, prevailing before telephone poles marched down every sandy tidewater and clay Piedmont lane.
Those were the days, even into the '20s and '30s, of mules and wagons instead of tractors and automobiles. The land was silent, except for the natural sounds of wind and birds, and almost lonesome. The loudest noise was the sound of the human voice. Isolated on his 40 acres, a mile or two removed from the nearest neighbor, a farmer—after returning from his fields and milking his cows at dusk—would let out a distinctive holler to let his neighbor know all was well. Answering hollers would come back across the creek bottoms and tobacco fields. The farmer would enter his stilted cabin, trim his kerosene lamp and read a chapter of Deuteronomy before bedtime, with his world secure around him.
If the farmer should happen to be late coming home from his weekly trip to town, he had a special holler to let his wife know that it was time to put the supper on the cookstove. Should sickness strike and the wagon be broken, there was another kind of holler that signaled the emergency. "A dreadful sound it is, too," says Ermon Godwin Jr., the gentle-mannered, platinum-haired banker who has, in a manner of speaking, brought back the holler.
Godwin and a Dunn, N.C. radioman named John Thomas have a weekly program they call Let's Talk. One day Godwin chanced to mention the custom of hollering. Thomas jokingly suggested a contest. "Inspirations like that come on you in a minute," Thomas says. "Usually you forget 'em in a minute, too." But from then on, the contest idea just spread like whooping cough.
July 12, 1971
It is apparent now that for years the athletes of the epiglottis, the Olympians of the larynx, had been ignored unsoundly. A nation nobody had thought gave a hoot about hollerin' remedied an oversight that cried aloud for correction. Four to five thousand people showed up for the first contest in 1969 and stood in 100° heat for hours. The winner—overalled, red-burnt Dewey Jackson—got on national TV and received congratulations from President Nixon, who had previously asked us to lower our voices.
By the second year people were coming from distant states. Oldtime hollerin' was reported from points as widespread as Alabama, Massachusetts and Michigan. The Voice of America, which broadcast the event, received 365 letters from foreign countries.
As a result, an international division had to be added this year. Recorded entries arrived from India, Burma, Austria, Ecuador, Czechoslovakia and Nigeria, and it was a Nigerian who was acclaimed the winner. He demonstrated hollers to locate hunters in the bush, to call women together for gossip or shopping, to summon youngsters to sweep the village square or fetch water, to announce a death or to warn of a thief loose in the vicinity.
And national interest was booming. Indiana held an elimination to select a Hoosier Hollerer and flew the winner direct to Spivey's Corner. Martha Mitchell had her secretary check hotel accommodations in Dunn before declining. George Wallace sent a letter three pages long.
All sorts of hollers were rediscovered. Riverboatmen on the Mississippi had a set. Possum hunters used one kind to signal their dogs, and fox hunters needed another kind. Farm wives summoning the clan for dinner had a special call. Moonshiners still use a whole vocabulary of calls, and there is a hymnbook of revival songs to be hollered.
"We found out about a special holler for cornshuckin', too," says Godwin. "All the men would get together on a pile of corn, and a demijohn would be going around. Pretty soon they'd get to hollerin'. Anytime anyone shucked a red ear, he'd get an extra big swig from the jug. As time wore on, the hollerin' got better and better. By the end, there'd be someone right up on the barn rafters leading all the others.
"The biggest part of hollerin'," says Godwin, "was the plain pleasure of it—making a big noise on a fine, still summer morning to see how far it would carry. Or to relieve tension. You'd be surprised how much a good two- or-three-minute-long holler lets out. That's what the Rebel yell was for, you know—not to scare the enemy but to relieve the boys' feelings as they went into battle."
For some reason the Spivey's Corner hollerin' contest sprouted associated competitions, such as a possum beauty contest, a big-foot contest (won by an 11-year-old girl with size 11s), a caterpillar-pickin' and a mule-train trek. And this year they selected a Miss Possum and Miss Spivey's Corner, and held three square dances.
Possum pulchritude caught on smartly in Spivey's Corner, sitting as it does right in the middle of America's premier possum-huntin' territory. And what happened to last year's winner, a rare white critter with red-polished toenails named Slow Poke, didn't hurt either. North Carolina Governor Bob Scott had proclaimed a state Possum Day and mentioned the possibility of celebrating with possum stew. It was an impolite move. Slow Poke had endeared himself to Tarheels by beating out a California possum sent by Ronald Reagan. Scott immediately backtracked. He got out the form used to release prisoners from the state penitentiary, inserted Slow Poke's name in the appropriate space and had the possum released as part of the dedication of a park.
This year Bonnie and Clyde, a matched pair of tame possums, won for Mr. and Mrs. Arvie Jackson. Honorable mention went to a lady possum, VWA Girl, for producing four little possums just preceding the contest.
As for the mule trek, Wagon Master Walt Ragan, outfitted in coonskin cap and Dan'l Boone duds, said he hit on the idea when he realized that one of the nation's few mule-plowing areas left is just east of Dunn. Besides, wagons are plentiful. The Hackney Wagon Factory made wagons in Wilson until 1940, Thornhill made them in Hickory after the war and McKay Manufacturing, which is right in Dunn, still makes wagon parts.
Young Gene Bass, Don Jackson and David Pope were proud of their wagon and their mule—"named Kate or Barney, either one"—but they generously admitted, "That's the best wagon over there, Ricky Hawley's." Sure enough, Hawley's wagon, drawn by a pigeon-toed mule named Myrtle, was festooned with pioneer appurtenances: a coffee grinder with a large coffeepot hung above it; an old wood water keg with gourd dipper slung beside it; saws, sickles, wooden mauls, froes, washboards, jugs, iron pots, lanterns and a shaving strop. "Most of this mah great granddaddy made," Hawley said. The whole wagon train, with dozens of horsemen as outriders, bemused women in housecoats on verandas as it rumbled through Dunn's main street and headed for Spivey's Corner.
But hollerin' remained the big noise. Second-place winner John E.S. Laurence from England charmed the large crowd with melodious calls and yodeling he described as Highland hollerin'. "The sound has got to be very high and pure to get down in the valley four or five miles away to tell them you're coming and are very hungry," he said.
Bill Dennis, the Hollerin' Hoosier Barber from Westfield, Ind., told the Carolinians how he got into the racket. "I ran a one-chair barbershop," Dennis said, "with only enough room for lour people to wait. I took to stepping outside when the shop emptied and giving a holler like this." He emitted a long, piercing tunelet. "That was the signal for anybody who needed a haircut to come running. When the place was filled, I let out another holler like this: [a decrescendo]. Pretty soon I was known all over Hamilton County as Bill the Hollerin' Barber. I made so much money I built a nice new barbershop and quit hollerin'. Then a storm knocked out the fire siren, and the town enlisted my help. I'd step outside my shop and do this: [a banshee wail]. It worked out real good until the town council got upset because so many people were calling in false alarms just to hear me holler."
But the crowd's true affection was reserved for the genuine old hollerers—Ezra Edwards, E. B. Maynard and Uncle Ben Lee of Dunn; Floyd Lee of Newton Grove; J. R. Oliver of Garland; O. B. Jackson of Roseboro; 80-year-old Paul Parker of Clinton; and the eventual winner, Leonard Immanuel of Godwin, going on 68. Besides all the signal hollers, the shy oldtimers brought the Carolina crowd to its feet and cheering with hollerin' renditions of Speckled Bird, Shortnin' Bread, My Lou, My Darlin' and Oh, You Must Be a Lover of the Lord or You Can't Go to Heaven When You Die. They had proud, frail Immanuel repeat a cornshuckin' holler called Blowin' the Horn Blues and they nearly wept when he concluded his performance with Amazing Grace.
"We'd go to a "bacco barn, maybe, for prayer meetin'," Maynard explained. "We didn't have the nice churches we have now. On the way home, we'd holler somethin' we heard in meetin'."
And then they made beaming Leonard Immanuel do the sweet melody of Amazing Grace once more.