With a Rebel Yell


Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, does have a traffic light, which is more than can be said for Plain View, its western, and bigger, neighbor. It has several, actually, all at the same crossroads. It even has a marble monument: “Welcome to Spivey’s Corner, hollerin’ captial of the universe.”

Back in 1984, at the monument’s unveiling, there was an awkward moment that is now legendary. A local teacher pointed out to Ermon Godwin, cofounder of the annual hollerin’ contest, that the t and the i in “Capital” had been transposed. Mr. Godwin, to his credit, maintained his savoir faire, calmly telling the woman, “That’s the way we pronounce it up here.”

From this, you can see that people in these parts are very keen on phonology—or linguistic morphology; that may be closer to the point. They see a difference between hollering and hollerin’ that, I must admit, is splitting the hair a mite thin. JUNIOR! IF YOU DON’T GET DOWN OUT OF THAT TREE, IM GOING TO TAN YOUR HIDE! Now that, I would call yelling, but I can see how folks could consider it to be hollering, as opposed to hollerin’. I can now.

It’s complicated.

So, let’s let hollering lie, and focus our attention on hollerin’. Which is a hard thing not to do at the 32nd Annual National Hollerin’ Contest, where contestants are letting loose with sounds that will carry a good four miles, maybe farther, bouncing off stands of pine windbreaks along their way.

Hollerin’ is indigenous to Sampson County, which encompasses Spivey’s Corner, in the coastal plains of North Carolina. Aficionados of this “almost lost” art insist that it must not be confused with hog calling, nor with yodeling, which is done by mountain folk.

The easiest way to explain hollerin’ to the uninitiated is that it is akin to Tarzan’s call of the jungle, but far more complex. Hollerers modulate sound in their throats like Tarzan did, but also by changing the shape of the mouth cavity.

“For those who can’t tell genuine hollerin’ from screaming and yelling,” Ermon Godwin and Oscar Bizzell helpfully tell us in their history of the contest, Hollerin’ Revived at Spivey’s Corner, “there are four basic hollers that were practiced daily back before telephones came into being: the distress, the functional, the expressive, and the communicative.”

The easily recognizable distress holler was a cry for help, “usually done in a falsetto tone and urgent sounding voice.”

The functional holler, “often mislabeled as hog calling”—they really don’t like that term—is used to call in farm animals, but it also “let your neighbor know all is well, supper’s on the table, or you need a fresh bucket of drinking water in the field.”

The expressive holler is used in singing, “particularly if you don’t know all the words of a song.” It is considered “loud social conversation and is generally practiced just for the sheer ecstasy of hearing yourself.”

All hollers are for the purpose of communication, but the communicative holler proper “is used simply to touch base with another soul. 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.”

Listen to Kevin Jasper’s winning holler.

Naturally, as we enter the 21st century, hollerin’ as a practical form of communication is long dead. That is the raison d’être of the hollerin’ contest: to resuscitate and keep alive this traditional folk art. So now, hollerin’, for the most part, takes place on a flatbed-trailer stage on the baseball field at Midway High School, on the practice field, or, as we shall see, in automobiles.

Out of the field of a dozen contestants in this year’s contest, there were actually two Yankees: John Harry, originally from Michigan, but now living in Shannon, North Carolina; and Steven “Corn” Alcorn, from Montville, New Jersey.

The Immortals of Hollerin’ include past champions like Leonard Emmanuel, Floyd Lee, H.H. Oliver, and Henry Parsons. They have all gone home to Hollerin’ Heaven now, but their talents (and those of six other former champs) are preserved for posterity on the CD Hollerin’, recorded at Spivey’s Corner in 1975 and 1976. They are also honored by contemporary contestants, who do their own renditions of the old-timers’ hollers.

It was listening to, and falling in love with, this CD that brought Corn Alcorn to the stage to throw his voice into the mix. “We didn’t have any cows or pigs to call,” he told the predominantly Southern crowd, “but my buddies and I did have a holler up in New Jersey. If we were out playing and got separated, we’d holler ‘eer-REET! eer-REET!’ until we got back together.”

Corn finished by hollerin’ the tune to “You Are My Sunshine,” in honor of former Louisiana governor Jimmy Davis’s 100th birthday this year, followed by one chorus of “How Great Thou Art.” As he left the stage to hearty applause, the MC told him, “That first one you did, Steve, we normally reach for a can of WD-40 when we hear a sound like that.”

You no doubt noticed that I tried to render Corn’s holler phonetically. His was relatively simple, but with the more traditional hollers, I feel like the (Yankee) humorist H. Allen Smith must have felt when he set out in the early 1950s to write The Rebel Yell, in which he searches for the definitive spelling of the eponymous call. His research yielded nine candidates—including “Who-who-ey! who-ey! Who-who-ey! who-ey!” and “Errrrr-yahhhhhhhhhhhh-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!”—all of which were, to his mind (and mine, for that matter) unsatisfactory. While I have rendered a few hollers as phonetically accurate as I could, mine are as unsatisfactory to me as Smith’s were to him.

Only two old-timers competed this year. Eighty-seven-year-old Lewis Foy Jackson of nearby Newton Grove contributed a rousing, rapid-fire version of “that ol’ rocking chair song”: “Well, takes a rockin’ chair to rock/takes a Cadillac to roll/takes a good-looking woman just to satisfy my soul/Keep on rocking/rocking all night long.” But it wasn’t really hollerin’, and he finished out of the money—or the glory, I should say. A handsome trophy is the only prize.

“Hollerin’ is communicating one with another; it’s not about calling dogs or hogs or cows.” That’s the way Robey Morgan, 85 years old and a two-time champion, opened his set. And he said it with finality, before doing versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Shortenin’ Bread” that netted him a third-place finish.

Another two-time winner, Larry Jackson, seemingly contradicted Mr. Morgan’s dictum with his demonstration of a whoop and a holler. “A whoop let your neighbors know ‘I’m fixing to send you a message.’ It went like this: ‘HOOOOOO-OOOOOOH! HOOOOOO-OOOOOOH!’ If you wanted to let your neighbor know your hogs was out, you’d do a whoop holler and then a hog call: ‘SUUUUUUUUUUUU-EEEEEE! SUUUUUUUUUUUU-EEEEEEE!’ If he had seen your hogs, he’d holler back.” (I told you it was complicated.)

Defending champion Tony Peacock, as expected, turned in a near flawless set, covering H.H. Oliver’s version of the old chestnut “Lulu My Darling” and closing out with an earsplitting rendition of his signature good morning holler: “LAA-OOOOOOO Lalalalalalalalalalalalalalala-LAH LAAA-O LAAA-O LAAA-O LAH WHOOOO!”

If turnabout, like they say, is fair play, then it was fair enough that Kevin Jasper edged out Peacock to take first place, just as Tony had done to him in 1999. Kevin had given an outstanding performance of expressive hollers, the high point being something called a “rolling waters holler,” a special holler from the repertoire of the immortal Henry Parsons. I couldn’t begin to put it down phonetically. The best I can do is to say it was kind of like drawn-out hiccups.

Jasper was gracious in victory. “I live in Burlington, and work over in Wake Forest,” he said, closing his acceptance speech. “It’s about 50 miles back and forth. I got me a hollerin’ tape, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to it. And I want to tell you, if ever you’re on I-40 between Burlington and Wake Forest and you see somebody in an old Mercury Marquis doing this [he does a short burst of in-and-out hollerin’], you’ll know it’s either somebody having a coronary, or me practicing my hollerin’.”