National Hollerin' Contest is nothing to sneeze at

Courtesy Janice Edwards / Today
Tony Peacock, the 2011 winner of the National Hollerin' Contest, held this weekend in Spivey's Corner, N.C.

If you’ve ever been shushed by a cranky concertgoer or tight-lipped librarian, here’s your chance to get your revenge. On Saturday, the tiny town of Spivey’s Corner, N.C., will host the National Hollerin’ Contest, which promises to be a howling good time.

The event, now in its 44th year, celebrates the “lost art” of hollerin’, the traditional form of communication that people used before telephones became commonplace. It’s also apparently the highlight of the festival calendar in Spivey’s Corner, which despite its small size — pop. 48, give or take — proudly calls itself “The Hollerin’ Capital of the Universe.”

Not the nation, mind you, or the world but the universe. Sadly, we haven’t checked out hollerin’ competitions in other galaxies but with that kind of moxie, we had no choice but to give the contest a shout-out as our Weird Festival of the Month for June.

Hollering, it should be noted, is not the same as screaming or yelling. Instead, it’s a traditional vocalization marked by rapid shifts between natural and falsetto voices that was used throughout the region to communicate with neighbors, call farm animals and family members, or simply celebrate the musicality of the human voice.

“It’s not about how loud you are, it’s about the technique,” said Aaron Jackson, a local volunteer firefighter and Hollerin’ Contest committee chair.

In other words, it’s a lot like yodeling but without the lederhosen.

The contest, which is also a fundraiser for the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department, was born in 1969 after Ermon H. Godwin, a local radio personality, proposed the idea, partly as a joke and partly to revive a remnant of earlier times.

As Godwin told the Associated Press in 1996, “A good holler could be heard a mile away. Depending on the holler, younguns’ knew when to bring a half-gallon Mason jar of water and when to bring an ax or a hoe to kill a snake.”

Today, the event features hollerin’ contests for men, women and children, along with a car show, food booths and whatever other offbeat activities organizers can come up with. Hollerin’ aside, one of the most popular events is the greased watermelon roll in which contestants try to catch a slippery watermelon as firefighters use a high-pressure fire hose to keep it away from them.

“If you catch it before it gets out of the zone, you get to keep it,” said Jackson. “That’s the prize — you get to keep a greasy watermelon.”

Other events, including whistling and conch-blowing contests, have come and gone over the years but hollerin’ is clearly the big attraction, with the best contestants actually hollerin’ out “Amazing Grace,” “Shortnin’ Bread” and other traditional songs.

“You want to pick out sort of a niche holler that you can call your own,” said Jackson. “That’s what usually wins the contest.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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