Tradition is heart of the hollerin’ contest, which is held at the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department.
It was a way of life that was necessary for souls to come into this world and to tell of souls passing out of this world. The vocalizations of past generations were used as ways to share good news, bad news, to greet and to meet. Hollers were used to find the lost and call in the midwife when the baby was due. This historic tradition has been saved by the vision of many souls from the past that have passed the techniques to the current day participants who, in turn, seek to pass it along to future generations to keep custom alive.
2008 Lady’s Callin’ champion Sheila Frye, who can boast of four championships in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008, participated the first time in 2002.
“My first year I didn’t know all the rules and I did not even place,” Frye recalled. “I decided to work on it for the next year’s contest. I did and I have been a part of the contest every year since.”
Frye said her interest in the Hollerin’ Contest began one night as she and her husband were watching David Letterman on television and the hollerin’ champions from that year were on. “As we watched the David Letterman Show, my husband said to me something about all the old stories I had told that my family had passed down to me and suggested that I might look into participating in the contest.”
Currently, Frye works with the Maternal Women’s Health and Childhood Injury Prevention Programs of Wake County. She lives in Lillington with her husband, her son, who is a senior in high school, and a daughter in the eighth grade.
“We have almost lost the generations of the party line telephone, turn table albums, 8-tracks and working in the fields so hard you looked forward to school starting to get out of them. That is why it is so important for us to preserve the tradition of hollerin’ for the future.”
The former Autryville native commented that, when she was young, she could not wait to grow up and leave Sampson County, but now cannot wait to return for all the old stories and fun times remembering the old days.
The callin’ champion explains that her signature holler would be called the “branch” holler. “I developed my ‘branch’ holler from a time when I would go out in the yard and could hear my aunt who lived across the branch, feeding her pigs. The noise made by the pigs eating let me know she was out there and I would call to her. If she responded then I knew she was the one feeding the pigs. If no one called back, it was my uncle and he did not holler. My aunt would let out a ‘whoop’ and I knew everything was all right.”
Frye added that there were hollers that she uses at times like the midwife holler that was used to call the local midwife when a baby was coming and one she used to call to her cousin Tammy that lived down the road, jokingly labeled the ‘graveyard’ holler because that would be where she and her cousin would meet up to hang out and talk.
“Today, people cannot imagine life without the modern-day gadgets we use every day. They cannot grasp not being able to communicate instantly and that is why I do all I can to preserve the tradition of hollerin’,” stated Frye. She noted that a lot of her free time is spent doing presentations on the art of hollerin’ and the variety of calls that exists. “I can do a 15-minute to a two-hour presentation. I have spoken to Lions Club, day camps, luncheons and festivals trying to pass down the hollerin’ tradition.”
Kevin Jasper, a Mocksville resident in Davie County, is a four-time winner of the National Contest winning in 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2008 and plans to compete again this year, is a hollerin’ enthusiast. He became interested in hollerin’ when he was living in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem area and was watching television one night and saw Dan McLamb and his three-legged dog Percy on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show.
“Mr. McLamb demonstrated hollerin’ and I started thinking about hollerin’,” Jasper remembered. “At that time I was a singer and I thought about how hollerin’ presented so many vocal challenges. In the late 1980s I began to start talking about taking hollerin’ up.”
It was not until 1994 when Jasper had returned to North Carolina that he actually went to the public library in Burlington to look up information on hollerin’ and the national contest.
“I found Mr. Ermon Godwin’s telephone number and called him,” Jasper said. “Mr. Ermon explained hollerin’ to me and got me turned on to it. He told me about the CD and the audio recording that had been done in 1974-75, that had many of the hollerin’ contest pioneers and winners included. It helped to develop my calls and gave me a better understanding what true hollerin’ was.”
Jasper went on to say that he enjoys the contest and all the festivities, because it is a great family experience with fun for everyone. The three-time champion commented that, in his first contest back in 1998, he lost and did not do that well. But he fell in love nonetheless.
“I fell in love with hollerin’ and the tradition that came along with it,” he remarked. “I have competed every year except for one year, when I served as a judge prior to the rules change allowing former champions to compete after winning. Fortunately for me, I have finished in either first or second place in each competition since then.”
When asked what his signature holler is, Jasper responded, “Well I don’t have a signature holler yet. I am working on an original holler that I am developing and I may use it this year. Tony Peacock (another champion) developed his own holler and I want to do my own also. I think some of us newer guys to the contest would like to see a more modern use of language in the rhythms from the past and using the traditional techniques of hollerin’ instead of just doing the same old hollers.”
Jasper said he felt that if some of the hollers are more modern they will in turn be more relevant to a young audience. “Hollerin’ was almost a lost art and to preserve it we need to get the young guys involved. The old timers would do things like ‘Jimmy crack corn’ and the old hymns but I think we need to incorporate new songs and themes to make the hollers more up to date while using the traditional techniques. Hollerin’ is fun and I will do all I can to preserve it and would love to see some new things done that will become a part of the tradition too.”
The champion added that he would like to see a new hollerin’ CD done with some of the newer members included, thinking that it may help others to become involved.
Tony Peacock, a schoolmate of Frye’s, is a two-time past champion and is a pseudo-authority on the history of the Hollerin’ Contest, although he does not like to own up to that fact. Peacock grew up in the Clement area and was around hollerin’ but did not get involved until a little later in his life. Currently, he is artist in residence working mainly with Wake County Schools, but travels throughout the state teaching and lives between Chapel Hill and Carrboro with his wife, Susan.
“I have to start out talking about Ermon Godwin,” Peacock begins. “Mr. Ermon got together with John Thomas, a real estate agent in Dunn, with a couple of other people from the community, and decided to do something to help save the tradition of hollerin’. Originally the first contest was not really going to be a big deal, to be held in Mr. Ermon’s backyard, until Mr. Ermon got word that Charles Kuralt from CBS was planning to come cover the National Hollerin’ Contest, they decided they better make it something special and that is what they did. Mr. Ermon was a master storyteller of tall tales. He would do anything to promote Spivey’s Corner, and he did. Mr. Ermon was responsible for offering asylum to the Shah of Iran, bidding for the Olympics, inviting the Super Bowl to come play in Spivey’s Corner, even offered the Corner as a place for Skylab to fall all in an effort to bring notoriety to the quaint village. He wanted the whole world to know about Spivey’s Corner and what a special place it is. When the U.S. Navy retired the USS Midway, he told them that they could dredge Coharie Creek and permanently moor the warship in Spivey’s Corner. Mr. Ermon was truly a great entertainer, businessman, statesman and promoter that will be greatly missed this year at the contest and years to come. He always treated the participants and winners of the contest with such respect. Mr. Ermon was truly concerned about preserving tradition, particularly the tradition of hollerin’.”
The first contest in 1969 was the only contest held on the fourth Saturday in June, and according to Peacock, the date was changed to the permanent date of the third Saturday in June because the fourth Saturday was in conflict with the big gospel sing held annually in Benson. “Because of the founders’ concern that the contest be a community event they did not want it to conflict with another event that was also for the entire community.”
Peacock won his first championship in 1999 and the second in 2006. “My first cousin, Larry Jackson, who has won the most championships, was the hollerer in the family. He helped me to be inspired to attempt my first contest. I got a copy of the Rounder Records recording that had been produced with the early winners on it after I made up my mind I was going to try it and studied and tried to develop my holler. I did not place in 1998 but pulled it off in ‘99.”
The good morning holler shared Peacock is his signature holler. “My good morning holler was inspired from my memories as a child and is a combination of the rhythm similar to a Primitive Baptist preacher and what I learned from listening to the recordings.”
The two-time champion also expressed the same fact that several of the other winners had stated, that hollerin’ was not hog calling. In fact it was not even hollerin’ with a “g” but a traditional way that people used to communicate before telephones, e-mail, cell phones and other such gadgets, that people in this area used share information among themselves. “We have to dispel the public concept that hollerin’ is pig calling. I often get called the pig calling champion. Those of us who have tried to study and learn about the history of hollerin’ are now charged with making sure that the historical practice of communication known as hollerin’ is preserved and future generations will understand that it was a way of life — a way of life that saved lives, shared sadness, brought happiness and entertained. We compete against ourselves to do better than we did the last time. To make ourselves better and we are proud to be a part of this great tradition.”
Remembering the past is what four time National Hollerin’ Contest champion, Gregory Jackson is all about in regards to hollerin’. “My grandfather Graham Jackson, took me to the first hollerin’ contest 41 years ago (the first one),” shared Jackson. “I learned that day at the age of ten, the importance of remembering the past and the history that helped people to survive.”
Jackson is the regional manager, eastern seaboard for BRANDT, a specialty formulation nutrient company for many of the crops such as cotton grown from Maine to Florida. He is on the road a large amount of his time and is not home for long periods of time but is hoping to be home for this year’s Hollerin’ Contest on Saturday, June 20. “I haven’t decided for sure if I will compete this year. It is an odd year and I haven’t had to much luck on odd year’s, “ quipped the former champ. Winning in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998, Jackson shared that he does plan to compete again.
“I feel strongly we need to preserve our history and hollerin’ is a big part of our tradition, history and culture here in Sampson County and North Carolina. Before everyone had cell phones and pagers, communication was done by people calling to one another when they were in harms way with a distress holler. Other times people would use a morning greeting call to check on their neighbors to see if they were up from their night’s rest and doing all right. A location call or holler was used when someone was lost to help them find their way out of the woods or such. Sometimes a young man would holler out to his girlfriend to let her know he was on his way over with a courtin’ call. Another big part of hollering history was the call used for entertainment while working. Many times when working in the fields or during corn shucking, people would start hollerin’ songs to help get them through their chores and the drudgery of their work. The hollerin’ would help get them through the difficult work.” Jackson continued to state that was the reason the Hollerin’ Contest was begun. “I am so grateful for those people that were mindful enough to want to save a part of our history and keep it for going away because it was not being used any longer and starting the contest. The purpose of raising funds for the Spivey’s Corner fire department was also a great cause to help also.”
“My last win was a really good day for me,” expressed Jackson. “My daughter Nina, actually came up on stage with me after I won and hollered with me. Then we went to my grand daddy’s house and sat on the tailgate of the truck and we hollered ‘Amazing Grace’ because he was not able to go that day. It was a good day.”
Jackson concluded his remarks saying, “I am glad to be a participant in part of the history of hollerin; and keeping it alive for future generations. The number of people that actually experienced the use of this form of communication is quickly disappearing and it is up to us and future generations to make sure it does not vanish. The opportunities that I have received as a result of participating and winning the hollerin’ contest have given me so many memories and chances to meet people with which I have been able to share the story of hollerin’ is just fantastic. I possibly would have never had those opportunities if it had not been for this part of my heritage. I hope as the years go by more young people will become involved in learning the true meaning of this tradition and help preserve it for their children and their future.
The undisputed grand champion hollerer presently is Larry Jackson of Dunn, who has won a total seven National Hollerin’ titles to date and plans to compete this year for another back-to-back championship. He won his first title in 1991 followed by winning in 1995, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2008 while finishing second in 2007.
“I grew up around hollerin’ people. I can remember helping Mr. Leonard Emanuel barn tobacco and he would holler,” said Jackson. “He had a real soft voice and I was fascinated how much volume could come from such a soft spoken man. These people being around me inspired me when I was about 19 and caused my interest in hollerin’ to peak. In the mid-1980s, Mr. O. B. Jackson, the first hollerin’ champion, who was in his mid-80s at the time, did a holler in an exhibition at the National Contest and I was impressed and amazed that a man of his age could present volume in his holler. I decided to try if for myself and my first placed third or fourth,” shared the winningest champ.
Larry Jackson’s signature holler is based on the old-time hollers and is a collection of the good morning holler, distress holler and the locater holler all done within the four minute time limit set in the hollerin’ rules. He adds that after initial attempt for the championship, he went home an worked on learning to control and develop his hollers and came back in 1991.
“Gregory Jackson dominated the championships at that time, having a good run in the early 2000’s. All hollers are pretty much on the same level, its just who is best that particular day who wins. Hollerin’ is like any kind of sport, if you don’t show and play, you can’t win,” stated real estate and construction (siding) dealer.
The seven-time winner went on to explain that hollerin’ was an easy way to communicate before the invention of modern day communication devices. In fact the use of hollerin’ goes back to colonial times when people wanted to let their neighbors what was happening. Jackson said that because Sampson County was such a rural and agricultural community that hollerin’ was a necessity and if you had to walk to tell someone something it could take over 30 minutes just to get there.
“It was matter of whether someone lived or died sometimes. Hollerin’ is yelling with a purpose,” shared the multi-year champion. “I remember my father hollerin’. He would sing a little bit then holler a little bit. I just thought it was because he didn’t know the words at first. I later learned that it was a way of life. It was a time when neighbors depended on each other. The man would get up and go out to feed the livestock while the wife was cooking breakfast and he would let a ‘whoop’. A whoop was done to get the neighbors attention and let him know a message was coming. I can’t document it but I feel that is where the old saying about a whoop and holler comes from. The farmer then would let out a good morning holler to let his neighbor know everything at his place was OK. The neighbor would respond and then spread the news throughout the community until everyone knew that everybody was doing fine that day.”
He also said that because the only social activities at that time were church and family it was the way they were able to be a close knit community and would let each other know if someone was in need. Many times the farmer might not holler for the remainder of the day.
One interesting fact shared by Larry Jackson was the fact that a low pitched holler would carry better when the weather was cool and damp, therefore, it was a good time for men to holler. A high pitched holler carried better when it was hot and dry, so women could carry better during the day like when calling the family for meals. He also commented that there were variables when hollerin’ such as wind and temperature and you always wanted to holler in the direction of the person with whom you where trying to communicate. “The best time to holler was when the smoke from the chimney was going straight up,” shared Jackson.
“This is going to be the first year for the contest without its biggest supporter and promoter, Ermon Godwin,” expressed Larry Jackson. “The tradition he helped to start and spent so much of his energy and effort to expand will go on because of such people as Wayne and Janice Edwards and so many that are committed to see that the art of hollerin’ never dies. That the great causes the hollerin’ contest supports will keep it going. I appreciate all those people from the Spivey’s Corner Fire Department for their hard work to put on the contest each year. In the early years there was not much competition but today competition is getting stronger that makes the contest better. Along with all the events and activities provided, it makes for a great day of fun and entertainment for the entire family. Hopefully more young people will become involved. I am thankful to have won so many times. It is a fun time with no animosity among the competitors with everyone wishing each other the best. Everyone would like to win but we are all winners just by participating. The people who work to plan this event work year round. As soon as this year’s contest is over, they will be planning for the next one. I am grateful to have been and continue to be a part of this tradition.”
Larry Jackson is proud that he is a hollerin’ champ but also expressed his pleasure that his daughter, Heather, was a two time champion and his niece, Jasmine Hall was a former lady’s champion. He went on to add that people might be surprised to know that nine championships had been won by graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and even a couple were graduates of North Carolina State University.
To contact Billy Todd, call 910-592-8137 ext. 117 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.