Ermon Godwin Jr., who founded the National Hollerin’ Contest, once said that most people “can’t tell genuine hollerin’ from screaming and yelling.”
Believe it or not, hollerin’ was once an actual, vital form of communication between farmers. Imagine the North Carolina of old days: wide-open fields and no telephones. Loud hollerin’ was how you told people hello or notified them of an emergency.
In the tiny community of Spivey’s Corner, Godwin thought there ought to be a contest, both to keep hollerin’ alive and to raise money for the local volunteer fire department. The idea was sort of tongue-in-cheek at first, but things got serious quickly. Charles Kuralt and others showed up to do news stories that spread across the nation. After Dewey Jackson, 70, won the first contest in 1969 by hollerin’ his way through “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” he earned a letter of congratulations from President Richard Nixon and an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
In its heyday, the contest attracted tens of thousands of people to Sampson County, and it became part of North Carolina’s folksy charm. But hollerin’, which had lost its value as a practical tool, also started to fade as a tradition, and the contest ended in 2016. Godwin maintained a practical approach to the competition’s longevity. “Hollerin’ is a part of our heritage,” he once wrote. “But rather than string it out after it loses its appeal, I’d say we should just forget it and go out gracefully.”
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