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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

January 30, 2024: Quirky American Traditions: National Hollerin’ Contest

[In honor of the very strange ritual that is Groundhog Day, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such quirky and fun traditions, including Phil himself on Friday. I’d love to hear about quirky traditions you’d highlight in comments!]

On the difficulty of remembering the past and preserving traditions, and how the intertubes can help.

As much time as I spend thinking, talking, and writing about history—and that is a very significant percentage of my time, natch—I have to admit that it remains difficult to truly imagine what it was like to live in distant past periods. For example, I grew up in the pre-internet and even pre-cell phone era (yes, children, there was such a thing), so I do have memories of what communication was like prior to all the instantaneous methods we now possess—but nonetheless, telephones were ubiquitous in my childhood, as they had been in America since at least the early 20th century, and so communicating with distant contacts was relatively straightforward and easy. But of course that wasn’t always the case, and so in the more genuinely distant past communities communicated in quite different ways—as illustrated by “hollering,” the method by which residents of rural communities in places like North Carolina communicated both everyday greeting and urgent news with each other across long distances.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, one such extremely rural North Carolina community, Spivey’s Corner (population 49 according to that article), sought to preserve that tradition of hollering through the National Hollerin’ Contest. Beginning with the first such contest in June 1969, for the next half-century or so this annual event brought thousands of visitors and a good bit of media attention to Spivey’s Corner, to witness masters of this traditional form of communication demonstrating their craft and to support this community in a variety of ways. By the 2010s the event was having difficulty sustaining interest, however, and the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department announced that the June 2016 contest would be the last one. In November of that year a pair of former contest winners (Iris Turner and Robby Goodman) sought to revitalize things by organizing a World Wide Hollerin’ Festival in nearby Hope Mills. Yet that festival took place only once, and from what I can tell the annual hollerin’ contest is no more.

And yet here we are, me writing about the contest and hollering, you (hopefully) reading and learning about them. A main point of the contest was that technology (like telephones) had made traditions like hollering obsolete and risked doing away with them, and I sympathize with that perspective and agree that things have to be done purposefully and consistently if we are to keep the past alive in an ever-changing present. But I also believe—perhaps obviously enough, as I share these thoughts, like I do so much of my work these days, in an online writing setting, but it still needs saying clearly—that technology has the ability to contribute to that work of preservation and memory, and indeed can do so for much broader audiences than even the most well-attended in-person event. To cite just one example, check out the many YouTube videos of both the contest and hollering in general, a veritable database of the practice, the tradition, and this now-concluded yet still fortunately available quirky festival of celebration.

Next quirky tradition tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other traditions you’d highlight?

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