The Lost Art of Hollerin’
Hollerin’ is considered by some to be the earliest form of communication between humans. It is a traditional form of communication used in rural areas before the days of telecommunications to convey long-distance messages. Evidence of hollerin’, or derivations thereof such as yodeling or hunting cries, exists worldwide among many early peoples and is still be practiced in certain societies of the modern world. In one form or another, the holler has been found to exist in Europe, Africa and Asia as well as the US. Each culture used or uses hollers differently, although almost all cultures have specific hollers meant to convey warning or distress. Otherwise hollers exist for virtually any communicative purpose imaginable -- greetings, general information, pleasure, work, etc. The hollers featured at the National Hollerin’ Contest typically fall into one of four categories: distress, functional, communicative or pleasure.
Within the US, particularly the Southeast, folklore researchers have found the practice of hollerin’ to be present primarily among traditionally black communities. Although hollerin’ is rarely found to have survived in white communities, many folklorist believe it to have once been widespread throughout the region and practiced by both whites and blacks alike. Oddly, in Sampson County, North Carolina, the reverse of the norm is true; while hollerin’ has continued to live on in white localities, there is little or no evidence of its existence among the black population.
Although similarities abound -- particularly in sound, hollerin’ as defined by the Spivey’s Corner contest, is not the same thing as yodeling or other farm or hunting calling. Rather, it is viewed, at least by Sampson County natives, as an art form to be taken seriously. Its roots, however, can be traced back to the men working on rafts in the 1700s, when logs were transported from Sampson County via its many rivers and streams to Wilmington. The loggers operating the rafts hollered back and forth to one another about their rafts so that they wouldn’t run into each other, or so that if stuck, others would come to their aid. The tradition has survived since its colonial origins.
The “trademark” holler of Sampson County, NC is one considered unique because of its virtuoso rendering. This holler “consists primarily of rapid shifts between natural and falsetto voice within a limited gapped scale” and the typical melodic movement “consists simply of alterations between the first, third and fifth of the scale” so that the voice is “employed almost as a musical instrument.”
Types of Hollers
The hollers native to Sampson County can be classified in one of the following groups:
Distress hollers: In many ways, hollers were essential in rural communities; they notified others within hearing range of imminent danger or brought assistance to otherwise isolated farmers when needed. In the past, locals say, hollers have helped locate lost children, saved drowning men, and even ended house fires. “There was just as much a need of hollerin’ as there was of eatin’ at that day and time,” says 1971 Hollerin’ Champion, Leonard Emanuel. Distress hollers are typified by a falsetto tone and sense of urgency.
Functional hollers: These are the hollers used in day-to-day life on the farm or in the field. Each farmer or rancher had his own distinctive hollers to bring in this hogs, cattle, sheep or dogs. This was particularly useful when farmers’ animals grazed common land. A farmer could round up his hogs with his unique holler without disturbing any of his neighbors’ hogs. This is also the type of holler used each morning to let nearby farmers know that one was up and about, as well as by women to call home their families from the fields at the end of the day.
Examples of The Different Types of Hollers'
Communicative hollers: “Howdy neighbor” is the main purpose of these cries. Ermon Godwin explains: “A man working alone in a field might holler just to hear a reassuring answer from his neighbor in the next field a mile or two away” . Women also frequently used this form of holler.
Expressive hollers: Some hollers are voiced purely for pleasure’s sake -- they are known as expressive hollers. Often, this is a hollered version of a popular tune or melody and serves no purpose other than of entertainment. Many of the contest champions have won using expressive hollers, particularly in recent years. Even North Carolina's Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham gets into the act with a hollerin' impression of a mule. You won't believe the Duet, but my favorite is the Quartet rendition of "Amazing Grace."
History ofThe National Hollerin’ Contest (1969-present)
Every year, on the third Saturday of June, in an otherwise sleepy borough of southeastern North Carolina known as Spivey’s Corner (population 49), some 5,000-10,000 folks gather from far and wide to take part in the festivities and entertainment in the day-long extravaganza known as the National Hollerin’ Contest.
You may have heard of the contest -- since its inception in 1969, the contest has garnered attention and fame throughout both the country and the world. The contest and its winners have been featured on television shows such as The Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman, in magazines with worldwide circulations such as Stars and Stripes and Sports Illustrated, and have even been the subject of documentary films, featured on The Voice of America, and mentioned in television sports commentaries.
Responsible for the publicity surrounding the unique event is one of the contest’s founders and self- described “master promoter,” Ermon H. Godwin. The contest began almost 30 years ago in 1969, when on a weekly radio broadcast with fellow contest founder and area resident John Thomas, Godwin jokingly suggested reviving the “lost art” of hollerin’ by holding a contest, the proceeds from which would benefit the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department. The first contest flooded the town (then population 48) with participants and observers, including the mainstream press. The day’s events featured not only the promised hollerin’ contest, but other contests, pageants and games as well, such as a biggest bell pepper contest, a watermelon roll and a square-dancing jamboree. Over the years the publicity efforts surrounding the contest have been unusual, if not down-right wacky: past invitees to the contest include former US president Ronald Reagan, the Shah of Iran, the 1984 Olympic Festival, the 1985 Super Bowl, and the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier.
Since the first contest, the annual event has become a summer ritual for many. Contestants convene in Spivey’s Corner on the Midway High School football field from around the world, although only one hollerin’ champion has hailed from outside Sampson County (H.H. Oliver, ‘70 champion, who hails from neighboring Wayne County). Currently, the day’s events feature five contests: the Whistlin’ Contest, the Conch Shell and Fox Horn Blowin’ Contest, the Junior Hollerin’ Contest, the Ladies Callin’ Contest and, of course, the National Hollerin’ Contest. (A separate “calling contest” [wives called their husbands in from the fields] was created for women hollerers in 1976 so the main contest is a men-only event.)
So When Is the Hollerin' Contest?
The National Hollerin' Contest traditionally takes place the third Saturday in June. The definitive source for current Hollerin' Contest information is at http://www.hollerincontest.com/scvfd/