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.
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.