About H.H. Oliver

When it comes to the subject of practicing instruments, musicians will tell all kinds of stories ranging from tall tales to whining outbursts of mystery. Outside the realm of a strange musical genre known as "hollerin'," nobody has the problems with practicing that someone like H.H. Oliver does. One of his areas of expertise when it comes to hollerin' -- some folks are great at calling cows, some at chickens -- is the so-called distress call. Out in the country, a good distress call can save lives. It might take a deputy sheriff or a fire truck 90 minutes to get there, if they show up at all and that's one reason practicing it is so damn hard. Twice within an Oliver one-hour practice session, neighbors pulled up in their cars wondering what was going on. The end result, if enough practicing was going on, would be something like the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Nobody would pay attention to the distress calls anymore. It is a good thing that the hollerin' contest occurs only once every June in the little village of Spivey's Corner, NC. H.H. Oliver was the champion of the event in 1970, the second year after the contest was started as a joke between two Sampson County residents.

Yet hollerin' is no laughing matter to the people who use the mastery of vocal expression over long distances in their day to day lives, even if it does sound a bit silly on-stage sometimes when it comes time for the contest. The problem seems to be, if one listens to local pundits, that old-timers such as H.H. Oliver are the only ones who really know all the old hollers. While the younger generation likes to show off and make goofy noises, Oliver and his peers, a unique class of traditional Appalachian performers, make hollers that really mean something. On the Rounder compilation significantly entitled Hollerin', Oliver presents the first holler of the day, known as the "Getting up Holler. Rather than being an extravagent form of yelling at one's alarm clock, this holler might actually serve as an alarm clock to others in the area, while serving notice that the party doing the hollering is out of bed and ready for action, meaning other types of hollers. There is a proper holler for "Rafting Logs Down Neuse River," and it usually means that one of the loggers has run into some problems and needs assistance. If one chooses not to listen to a current rap single, the ramifications would hardly be as serious as if someone tuned out one of these logging hollers and another man had an accident as a result; such is the world of hollerin', in which music plays a much larger role in life than just a background for the shaking of rear ends. Meanwhile, our hero is "Hollering on the Way to See a Girl," and this gives the lass plenty of time to clean up, perhaps slap on a bit of eau de cologne, because as Oliver put it in an interview, "...if you'd holler before you got there, she'd smell a little better when you got there, beause she's been chopping cotton all day and everything and haven't had time to get fixed up and everything if you just walked right in." If music is the song of love, holler on, in other words.

Hollering was always an important part of H.H. Oliver's life as part of a Wayne County farming family. One scary -- but in the end gratifying -- childhood memory involved him getting lost while picking huckleberries. He communicated with his mother through a holler and she wound up hollering him back to safety, so to speak, her vocalizations serving as directional guideposts. Again, this is an example of the depth of the hollerin' traditions, a far cry from stereo buffs who are able to find their way around a room thanks only to their left and right speaker. His mother also used hollering to save her own skin from the threat of two large black snakes in her path; the ruckus brought her sons who in turn intimidated the reptiles. Then there was also that fellow who fell into a frozen well while chasing a squirrel, or in other words, his dinner. According to Oliver, the subsequent holler "sounded funny," even if it couldn't quite be defined as a "guy stuck in a well holler." Oliver also learned much of his craft from folks who vocalized and whooped it up just for the holler of it. His father would make various vocal sounds all the way home from church, probably expressing relief that the sermon was over. Oliver himself would use his own vocal improvisations to amuse himself while he plowed a field. All the practice payed off with his contest win, all the more important because he is the only winner not to hail from Sampson County, breaking that county's stranglehold on the art of hollerin'. He has appeared on several television shows, such as To Tell the Truth. In the '90s, a champion named Gregory Jackson began winning the contest regularly and at least seemed to know his way around the old-time holler repertoire, even performing a tribue to past champions such as Oliver or Floyd Lee, creator of the incredible "Stopping a Rabbit With a Holler" holler. This Jackson fellow also appropriated the Oliver huckleberry story for his own interviews, either that or it is pretty easy to get lost picking huckleberries in this part of the world. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

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