Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.
Looking back at a few of my posts here on Boing Boing from the last couple days (the Chappe optical telegraph, the whistling language of La Gomera), I noticed that long-distance communication has been one of the major themes. Coincidentally, this past Saturday was the 41st annual National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner, North Carolina (population 49).
Hollerin' (no "g" at the end, just an apostrophe) is an ancient tradition native to the lowlands of eastern North Carolina, which needs to be distinguished from the other vocal pursuits to which it bears some superficial resemblance, including hollering, yodeling, hog calling, whooping, and hooting.In an age before telephones, the distinctive cries, which resemble something between an opera aria and a braying donkey, were the primary form of long-distance communication between North Carolina farms. With enough practice--and stamina--a good holler could be a true lifeline. You might holler first thing in the morning to let your neighbors know you were awake. You'd holler if you got lost, holler if you were celebrating, holler if dinner was ready, holler if you just wanted say, "What's up?!" There was a vocabulary of shrieks for every occasion, as well as a host of religious songs with throaty hollerin' translations.
The first time I competed in the National Hollerin' Contest, I was passing through Spivey's Corner on a road trip with a friend. We thought the idea was to stand up and yell something ridiculous at a ridiculously high volume. Somehow we seemed to miss the fact that several thousand people had gathered to watch the event and only twelve (mostly elderly) men had signed up to compete. We were the only ones from out of state.
I walked onto the stage and yelled the most random word I could think of, "GINGIVITIS!!" and then proceeded to bellow out an impromptu oration on the importance of dental hygiene. My friend and I felt certain we were shoe-ins for the title. But if the crowd's measured silence and disdainful glances weren't proof enough of how badly our performance had gone over, a full account of the disaster was given in the next morning's local newspaper. The lede began, "When it comes to hollerin', the amateurs are easier to spot than a Yankee at a pig pickin'."
A few years later, feeling guilty about my performance, I returned to Spivey's Corner for the 37th annual hollerin' contest to compete again, and offer the town an apology. This time, I enlisted Larry Jackson, one of the greatest hollerers in the history of hollerin', to teach me about the tradition and give me instruction in the ancient art. To make a long a story short I ended up finishing second.
To get a sense of what hollerin' is all about, check out this video of my mentor Larry Jackson from the 2007 contest: