The Holler and the Hollerin’ Contest

The Holler and the Hollerin’ Contest

The Holler

Hollering is a kind of outdoor vocalizing common in earlier times in places in eastern North Carolina, the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, parts of Alabama, and probably other sections of the South and elsewhere in the world. Hollering is loosely related to long-documented traditions such as urban vendors’ street cries. These typically have melodic phrases with a few words identifying the items for sale and the seller. Examples can be heard in the film “We Are Arabbers,” shot in Baltimore. Hollering also overlaps with work calls and cries used in many other occupations. Rural blacks mostly sang words in their old field hollers or “arwhoolies.” Currently in the United States the most widespread of the work calls are probably the price chants with which auctioneers stimulate bidding (illustrated in the films “Going, Going, Going,” “Mouth Music,” and “Ray Lum”). Feeding calls for domesticated animals are also common and may summon each kind of animal with a distinctive word and sound. These feeding calls are incorporated into the local hollering as is the yodeling made popular by early stage acts, recordings, radio broadcasts, and films. But much of the hollering in Spivey’s Corner, N.C., is a distinct form of vocalizing that uses few or no words. In the open, flat stretches of tidewater Sampson County hollering was reportedly done chiefly by white men. Their calls were loud, exploiting the carrying power of the male falsetto voice. Women also practiced some forms of it, and in the film “Welcome to Spivey’s Corner” a Coharie Indian, Leonard Emanuel, is the principal practitioner and the person most extensively interviewed. This kind of hollering developed in the silence of a world without constant and competing noises of machines. More particularly, it was a practical response to the isolation of old-time rural life before people had telephones.

The best overview of the holler—in the notes that Mark Wilson (folksong enthusiast and professor of philosophy) wrote for Rounder Records’ 1976 album Hollerin’—describes four forms of hollering. Ermon Godwin, Jr., who founded the Spivey’s Corner contest, adopted Wilson’s categories for his own short account aimed at those who “can’t tell genuine hollerin’ from screaming and yelling.” Four basic hollers, he wrote, were “practiced daily back before telephones came,” and he illustrated them with homely examples:

1. The distress holler: “obviously a cry for help” and usually in falsetto in “an urgent sounding voice.”

2. The functional holler: for calling the farm animals or telling your neighbor “all is well” or letting family members know you need “a fresh bucket of drinking water in the field” or “supper’s on the table.” Most women at the contest, he said, perform functional hollers.

3. The expressive holler: “just for the sheer ecstasy of hearing yourself” or for singing tunes, “particularly if you don’t know all the words of the song.” Godwin recalled that his grandfather, a farmer who died in 1932, often drove his mule and wagon to a nearby town for supplies and returned about sundown hollering tunes. “You always knew when he was coming home, he could be heard hollerin’ from a mile or two away.”

4. The communicative holler: a “lilting upbeat sound” used “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.”

Some people recalled uses that seem to complicate and blur these categories. H. H. Oliver demonstrated a holler a man transporting logs on the Neuse River might give if his raft caught on a snag. His holler alerted men on rafts behind him not to collide with his. Sheila Frye described a holler used to “call the local midwife when a baby was coming.” Mrs. Mayo Tart said when she was a girl working in her father’s field, she would holler across the swamp to her boy friend to see if he would be coming to see her on Saturday night. “From the tone of his voice” when he answered, “I could tell if he was coming. . . . I’d always get the message.” Gregory Jackson said a man working alone might holler to distract his mind from the drudgery of his labor in the fields, and a group of men might do the same during a corn shucking. Ermon Godwin himself wrote, “As a five year old boy in 1926, I helped pick cotton on the row with Tom Wise who was nearly grown. Several others were picking on rows alongside us. If Tom and I reached the end of our row first, we got to stand up and holler. That was our reward and we worked hard to earn our share of the hollers—really a form of bragging.”

The Hollerin’ Contest

Ermon H. Godwin, Jr., wrote that the idea for the Hollerin’ Contest, “as everyone must know,” came one morning in 1969 when he and “Dunn radio announcer John Thomas and others were sitting in a restaurant drinking coffee and the old-time practice of hollerin’ came up. Ermon and John Thomas decided that this was an art form that needed reviving.” But both Godwin and Thomas were influenced by other things than banter over a cup of coffee. In 1959 a church in Godwin’s community had burned down too quickly for firemen to get there from the nearest town. Godwin was a member of the church, and the event caused him and other public-spirited men to establish a volunteer fire department for that section of the county. They raised money to buy a fire truck but saw that they needed continuing support. Holding an annual event with the Fire Department as sponsor and beneficiary was their solution.

Godwin and his friends focused on hollering because they came from a transitional generation. Godwin himself grew up in the region, graduated from Midway High School, married a girl from Spivey’s Corner and built a house and raised two sons there, worked four years in a cotton mill in nearby Erwin (where his father had worked after leaving the farm), went on to other jobs, and eventually rose to become Assistant Vice President of a bank in Dunn ten miles away in the next county. In childhood he had known the old rural ways, delighted in them, and regretted seeing them die out. He himself wrote, “I heard daddy say many times that grandpa and Bob Jernigan, who lived on the next farm, were the best hollerers around.” When Godwin and his friend Oscar Bizzell wrote a small book about the contest in 1993, its frontispiece was a photograph with the caption

Dedicated to the memory of
Budd Godwin
A Hollerin’ Man
Grandfather of
Ermon Honeycutt Godwin.

But the contest was also shaped by Ermon’s personal traits. One was his keen sense of humor. People remember him as a delightful teller of the region’s tall tales, but his book itself offers ample proof of his love of fun and of his being also a born promoter bubbling with ideas. He knew exactly how to snare the interest of journalists. At his death in 2009 a friend wrote that he “just loved people, and he loved this community.” Over the years, the account said, Godwin was a deacon in the Shady Grove Original Freewill Baptist church, a charter member of the Dunn Clowns, a member of the Dunn Kiwanis Club and the Dunn Shriner’s Club. He founded the

Cape Fear Amateur Radio Club and the Dunn Investment Club. He was also a member and former president of the Sampson County Historical Society and the county’s Department of Social Services, and he served on the board of the North Carolina Department of Travel and Tourism. His friends shared his zeal for improving his community, his love of the region’s past, and his sense of humor, and they learned from him how to attract attention. Together they invented and for nearly a half century have carried on the most whimsically zany and successful promotional event in the history of North Carolina. They began in the year 1969.

One of Godwin’s first efforts was to get a catchy name for the festival site. Nearby property had originally been owned by a man named West. In 1922 Judge J. T. Spivey rented a piece of land from him on one corner of a crossroads and put up a small store there. It came to be called Spivey’s Corner. After his death in 1926 map makers labeled the place West. This is how the area was known until Godwin and his friends “decided they needed a name with more ‘Euphony’ to help promote their national event.” They thought “Spivey’s Corner” had exactly the right character, if less euphony than local color.

A contest was the right venue since it would draw eager competitors and their appreciative friends and kin. An abundance of prizes would spur them. Godwin and his friends sought and got support from regional businesses: the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, First Citizens Bank (Godwin’s employer), Carolina Telephone Company, Star Telephone Membership Corporation, WKML Radio of Fayetteville, Ralston Purina Company, and Coca Cola Bottling Company of Fayetteville. The event was to be held at Midway High School (about “2 hollers down Highway 421 from the world famed cross-roads”), and Godwin signed up a score of old timers for the first contest. Then the volunteer fire department made plans to hold a barbecue on the school grounds that day. The school’s booster club decided to add a big square dance on the football field. Godwin capped the events with “an old fashion cornshuckin’ bee.” The athletic director at the school offered his “old-fashioned covered wagon” and organized a gathering of others at Dunn eleven miles away for a wagon train with riders in pioneer dress to head to the Hollerin’ Contest.

Then outsiders caught the spirit. The mayor of Dunn “issued a challenge to all mayors in the state and the nation to compete against him in the contest.” Governor Bob Scott formally proclaimed June 28 as “Hollerin’ Day in North Carolina.” Word spread. Requests for information came from as far away as California and Washington state and from a soldier stationed in West Germany. Several thousand people came to this First Annual National Hollerin’ Contest despite temperatures so hot that one mule in the wagon train had to be replaced when it passed out.

So much fun was had at the first contest that the men decided to “do it all over again in 1970” and greatly expand it. They believed they could draw a crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000 and get national television and press coverage and enlist a string of state notables. “What started as jest became reality,” Godwin wrote. He appeared on the TV show “To Tell the Truth” and induced an associate producer of “Beat the Clock” to become one of the judges at the Second Annual National Hollerin’ Contest. This time the events began on Friday in Dunn, with a square dance and the departure of a wagon train headed to Spivey’s Corner. Walter Ragan, “outfitted in a coonskin cap and Daniel Boone duds” had hit on this idea because two of the three places in the state with a recent history of wagon making were close by, and mules were still used for plowing in the area. The winning wagon at the contest was drawn by a pigeon-toed mule named Myrtle. “The wagon was festooned with pioneer appurtenances: a coffee grinder with a large coffeepot hung above it; an old water keg with a gourd dipper slung beside it; saws, sickles, wooden mauls, froes, washboards, jugs, iron pots, lanterns and a shaving strop.” The owner announced, “Most of this stuff mah great granddaddy made.”

The contest day was enlivened by “various singing groups and by the Erwin sky-diving team which made three jumps during the day.” State Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Graham was well known for giving an imitation of a donkey. While the contest judges were voting he consented to perform his donkey bray. One contestant exclaimed over the microphone, “That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard from a politician this whole year.” The Hollering Contest also included a Miss Spivey’s Corner beauty pageant and the naming of a “Possum Queen.” The highlight of the afternoon show, however, was a Possum Picking Contest. Top honors went to Slow Poke, a “rare white critter with red-polished toenails.” He was later presented to Governor Bob Scott, who started fattening him up for the main course at a big banquet. “When word got out,” Godwin wrote, “it generated an outcry, including threats by good democrats that if Scott went through with the idea they would change their registration to republican. Governor Scott then 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 Raven Rock Park” next door in the possum’s native Harnett County.

In the following years the Contest was accompanied by family games, a petting zoo, a miniature golf course, a fly-in at Spivey’s Corner airport, a parachute drop by the Golden Knights of Fort Bragg, an antique-car caravan, a hot-rod show, a “Governor’s Rabbit Race,” a “caterpillar pickin’ contest,” a “big-foot contest,” an “annual pepper contest,” a “Ham Holler-in” (with ham radio operators relaying messages all over the world and displaying their equipment), a first annual “whistlin’ contest,” a “greasy pole climb,” arts, crafts, an “old-time fiddler’s convention,” a square-dancing contest, a “first annual hollerin’ run” (which wound past “highways and hog houses, spectators and chicken coops” and drew 1500 runners from thirteen states, with a prize for the one who “hollered the best while running”), a conch-shell blowing, and a fox-horn blowin’ contest (with only one contestant, age six, who won). Local civic clubs also set up booths—one a bingo booth, another a penny-pitching booth, and a third booth “where a youngster sitting over a tank of water” could be dunked when someone hit a target with a softball. A favorite and frequent event was the “watermelon roll.” Godwin described it. “Volunteer firemen,” he said, “manned high pressure hoses and attempted to keep youngsters from picking up a watermelon and racing 20 yards to the finish line.” Both spectators and contestants were likely to get soaked when firemen chased some of “the lucky ones able to get a melon in their arms.” Other attractions were a talent show and performances by the likes of the Duck Swamp Cloggers of Goldsboro, Roby Huffman’s Blue Grass Cut-ups, Jerry Sally, the Bill Lyerly Band, the Mandolin Rose Band, the Four Clefs, the Dixie Travelers, the Southern Express, the Southern Junction, Tom T. Hall, Andy Childs and the Memphis Sounds, Little Jimmy Dickens and the Country Boys, Jerry Clower, and local comedian Bobby McLamb, who had appeared on stage with country music stars Loretta Lynn, Johnny Rodriguez, and Dolly Parton. McLamb arrived, appropriately for one who had brushed with Stars, in the splendor of a chauffeured limousine.

Over the years there were other striking incidents. One was a “masterpiece of mistiming” when a “free balloon bearing a banner boosting a contender” for Secretary of State Thad Eure’s office “floated over the field 15 minutes after the crowd had departed. It made one wonder how a politician could associate himself with a large bag filled with hot air.” And at one contest the top prize had to be split between dairy farmer and former Sampson County Commissioner Dan McLamb and his three-legged dog Percy. According to Ermon Godwin, “When McLamb first began to holler, it didn’t appear that Percy would cooperate, but the 8-year-old dog, who McLamb said had been hollerin’ all his life, joined in soon and the huge crowd responded with a roaring applause.” This inaugurated a series of canine competitors and winners.

The annual National Hollerin’ Contest got the publicity that Godwin wanted. Charles Kuralt featured the first contest in one segment of his Sunday series on American vernacular culture “On the Road.” The Voice of America taped the contest for overseas broadcast. At one contest or another Godwin had magazine coverage by Newsweek, Southern Living, and North Carolina’s Our State and radio and TV crews from local stations, all three national TV news programs, the BBC, and others from Washington, D.C., Toronto, and Japan. Winners of the Contest appeared on TV shows like “To Tell the Truth,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “Good Morning, America,” “The Big Blue Marble,” “The Johnny Carson Show,” and “The David Letterman Show.” The Contest drew folklorists too—first, Peter Bartis, a graduate student in Chapel Hill, later of the American Folklife Center. He drew upon it for his master’s thesis. For the Seventh Annual Hollerin’ Contest Mike Seeger came both to serve as a judge and to make music at the hoe-down that followed in the evening. Bill Nowlin recorded the Contest in 1975 and Mark Wilson in 1976; they produced a Hollerin’ album issued by Rounder Records, which made the tradition very widely known. Numerous other people filmed in one year or another. Keir Cline’s “Welcome to Spivey’s Corner” is only one of several documentary films showing hollering or the contest. “Mouth Music” by Blaine Dunlap and Sol Korine includes a segment in which Leonard Emanuel hollers as he paddles through a swamp. Tamara Brooks’s “Hollerin’”—a more recent hour-length videocassette—has footage in which Ermon Godwin visits the grave of Leonard Emanuel and recalls him appreciatively. It also shows Tony Peacock and other hollerers of a later generation.

“Spivey’s Corner, the hollerin’ capital of the world, has something in common with the legendary Scotch community of Brigadoon,” said Hollerin’ President Ermon Godwin, Jr. “They both come to life once a year.” So some of his efforts were to extend the period when Spivey’s Corner would get attention from outsiders. In 1978 he and the Spivey’s Corner Olympic Committee made an official bid for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games—without success, even though they proposed construction of a 1,000-room Hollerday Inn. In 1979 he invited the recently deposed Shah of Iran to homestead in Spivey’s Corner; no reply. Undaunted, Godwin invited the National Football League to hold its 1984 Super Bowl in Spivey’s Corner. Commissioner Pete Rozelle sent a “polite note of refusal” saying that “the NFL is not quite ready for Spivey’s Corner” because the town has “just too many distractions and places for the players to get into trouble and break curfew.” Rozelle was forced instead to look to places like New Orleans, Los Angeles, or Miami, “where the social scene is not nearly as hectic.” But then Godwin got a cheering call from “NBC sports producer Ron Kershaw, saying he’d like to do a feature on Spivey’s Corner and how its townsfolk feel about being rejected for the Super Bowl.” Six people came from NBC and filmed parts of the town and two of the 1977 winners for inclusion in a two-hour “Special” to be aired before the Super Bowl game on January 20, 1983. The entire population of Spivey’s Corner—all forty-nine people—probably watched with disappointment when the Special failed to include the local footage. The citizens took some consolation, Godwin said, from the fact that Spivey’s Corner had received prime time-coverage on CBS in 1980 “when Sky Lab passed us by as a landing site.” Emboldened, in 1983 he invited a visit from President Ronald Reagan, who replied, “I have heard of your ‘hollerin’ contest.’ We have something like ‘hollerin’ here in Washington, only we call it the United States Congress.” He was, however, was compelled “to join that very distinguished list of decliners.”

“Fame,” however, “cannot be kept hidden in the video files forever,” wrote Ermon Godwin. Just two years after the failure of NBC to include Spivey’s Corner in its Superbowl Special, it did show some of the footage on January 20, 1985, as part of the half-time show of Super Bowl XIX—fully twenty-seven seconds of it, much more truncated than the treatment of the successful application from the City of San Francisco. But then, said Godwin, “San Francisco did offer a bigger fruit basket in each owner’s motel or hotel room.”

Godwin’s effort to gain national involvement culminated in the 1990s, when the USS Midway was decommissioned. This prompted him to write to its commanding officer to inform him that the residents of Spivey’s Corner united in offering their town as a final resting place for the aircraft carrier: “We realize that there could be minor problems of getting the MIDWAY to Spivey’s Corner,” but, he explained, “it could enter to harbor at Wilmington, N.C., and travel the Cape Fear River up to the Little Coharie Creek. Little Coharie Creek has its beginning within the area of downtown Spivey’s Corner. . . . We understand that the US Corps of Engineers has handled situations much greater than this task of dredging the Little Coharie to accommodate the MIDWAY. Sir, can you imagine the fact that the National Hollerin’ Contest would move from the football field at MIDWAY High School to the flight deck of the USS MIDWAY Aircraft Carrier. All 49 residents of Spivey’s Corner will be anxiously awaiting your answer. Hollerin’ly, Ermon Godwin, Jr., Mayor.”

By the Eighth Annual National Hollerin’ Contest in 1976 hollerers were coming from as far away as Indiana, Florida, Texas, New York, Minnesota (from a Midwest Regional Hollerin’ Contest at the University of Minnesota), Missouri, and Montana. They came of course without any roots in the Spivey’s Corner community, and their vocalizations bore little resemblance to the hollers of the early contestants. Ermon Godwin lamented that there weren’t many good hollerers around anymore, even among the locals. Some twenty would open their mouths, but most of them, he said, “will be screamers. I’d be surprised if we got more than two or three hollerers.” He responded with an educational effort, establishing the first annual University of Hollerin’, “where aspiring hollerers could learn the basic principles and the advanced techniques of this highly audible art from some of the real champions.”

Nevertheless, modern innovations slipped in. In several years contestant Gene Jackson of Goldsboro introduced a new feeding call, the “now-famous” holler for TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, “which went like ‘mooooney, moooney mooooney! Gimmmee, gimmmee, gimmmee! Just send it on in.’” This was a “real crowd pleaser.” Many younger performers who took up hollering with a passion, with Godwin’s encouragement, were by the time of his death in 2009, pushing the boundaries of the tradition. A newspaper account quoted one of them as saying, “I am working on an original holler that I am developing and I may use it this year. Tony Peacock . . . 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.”

Godwin himself said that the Spivey’s Corner fire company made about $3,000 a year from the Hollering Contest, and that putting it on was a “community affair” with many intangible benefits. This was in his opinion the chief value of the contest. He wrote, “I’ve had lots of fun with the contest over the years, but I don’t want people making a joke of it. Hollerin’ is a part of our heritage and I hope we can keep the contest going for many years to come. But rather than string it out after it loses its appeal, I’d say we should just forget it and go out gracefully.”

Outsiders have always been in danger of not perceiving the humor playing through this event. An anecdote in Godwin and Bizzell’s Hollerin’ Revived at Spivey’s Corner catches this collision of cultures. It says that when the producer of NBC-TV’s “Real People” called Ermon Godwin in 1979 about the coming 11th Annual National Hollerin’ Contest the first thing he wanted to know was “how big is the crowd going to be?”

“Oh, we’re estimating that 10,002 will attend this year’s event. It gets a little bigger each year,” said Ermon.

“10,002? Who ever heard of such a number as that? How did you come up with that estimate?” asked the TV man.

“Nothing to it. It makes just as much sense as expecting 10,000,” said Ermon, “and it shows a little growth too, ‘cause we only had 9,929 last year.”

“I think you’re spoofing me,” said the TV man. “Could be,” said Godwin.

Acknowledgements to: Notes by Dr. Daniel Patterson, with quotations mostly from Ermon Godwin and Oscar Bizzell’s out-of-print Hollerin’ Revived at Spivey’s Corner but some additional ones from Billy Todd, “Rich tradition of Hollerin’ Contest enters its 41st year” and Doug Clark, “Friends Remember Hollerin’s Co-Founder” in The Sampson Independent on line in