Learn more about the tradition of hollerin’ in the latest episode of Great Big Story, a new podcast from CNN about the surprising stories all around us.

(CNN)In the American South, in the tiny town of Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, the hills are alive with sound of some good ol’ timey hollerin’. And, yes, that’s “hollerin'” without the “g,” mind you. For nearly 50 years, the town was home to the National Hollerin’ Contest, celebrating a tradition that dates back centuries. But what started off as a small fundraiser, turned into a long-lasting phenomenon, attracting media attention from across the country, and around the world.

So, what exactly is “hollerin'”?”Hollerin’ is a controlled sound that farmers used to communicate with one another and express themselves,” says Tony Peacock, a six-time hollerin’ champion. “Hollerin’ was a way of life.”At a time before texting, cellphones or even electricity, hollerin’ was the way farmers in Sampson County, North Carolina, got messages to each other from a distance.”You didn’t have a phone to dial 911… you didn’t have a fire department or a rescue service close by,” explains Peacock. “So, you got out and gave a distress holler to let your neighbors know you needed help.”Read More”People hollered for water when they were out in the fields,” Peacock goes on. “When people logged and hauled logs down to the river, they had certain hollers that they used.”And hollers weren’t simply functional — you could give a holler to a neighbor just to say good morning, or you could belt out a holler to keep yourself entertained. “You didn’t have an iPad in your pocket or TVs at home because people didn’t have electricity,” Peacock says. “So, you would just holler a tune for the enjoyment of it, and to say, I’m glad I made it through the day.”Tony Peacock is a six-time hollerin' champion.Tony Peacock is a six-time hollerin' champion.Tony Peacock is a six-time hollerin’ champion.What do hollers mean?Most hollers can be broken down into four different categories. There are communicative hollers, which could be as simple as a “hello” to a far-off neighbor; distress hollers, which are used to signal the need for help; functional hollers, which might indicate farm work, or a need for supplies; and expressive hollers, which is hollerin’ just for the fun of it.And each person’s holler is different. “Everybody created their own sounds,” Peacock explains. “So, these hollers were sort of a signature many times for the person who did them.”The history of hollerin’ is still a mystery But, how did the tradition of hollerin’ arrive in Spivey’s Corner? Well, there’s still a lot we don’t know.”The hollerin’ tradition in Sampson County is something of a mystery in terms of its origins,” says Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of folklore and anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”In all likelihood, it came from White farmers and farmworkers who overheard the tradition of African American hollers,” Hinson explains.The African American tradition of hollerin’ is thought to have been brought over to the United States from West Africa by those enslaved during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”In a world where that claiming of space was denied historically, the ability to fill that space with artful sound meant that you were affirming your humanity and claiming yourself not just as a worker, but also as an artist and as an artist whose voice can just echo through the surround,” says Hinson.In North Carolina in the 19th century, there were plenty of forest plantations where enslaved people would have to work separated from each other, across large swaths of land. “It makes a lot of sense that there would be men working in relative isolation in the pine forests and filling those forests with their song,” Hinson says.But where the African American tradition of hollerin’ focused on improvisation and leaps of the voice, the tradition that emerged in Sampson County used set pieces that put the focus on individual signature hollers, instead.”There was an element that probably came through the root of country music, because a key part of these hollers for some of them is something that sounds much more like a yodel,” says Hinson about the Sampson Country tradition.The champions of hollerin'The champions of hollerin'The champions of hollerin'JUST WATCHEDThe champions of hollerin’ReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH

The champions of hollerin’ 03:20The contest started because of a fireThe history we know about hollerin’, however, is still limited. What we do know is that after the advent of the telephone and automobiles, the practice of hollerin’ died out. By the 1960s, many residents of Sampson County didn’t even know it existed.That all changed with the National Hollerin’ Contest.In 1959, a church in the county burned down, devastating the community. That event spurred them to launch a volunteer-led fire department in Spivey’s Corner. But in order to raise money for the fire department, they needed an event that could bring people together. That’s when someone had the idea to revive the tradition of hollerin’.”Five thousand people were estimated to show up at that first contest,” says Peacock. “What was originally scheduled probably as a little barbecue or cookout was moved to the athletic fields of Midway High School. They got national news. And people came from far and wide.”As the years went on, the contest kept growing and growing in scale. As two-time hollerin’ champion Robby Goodman describes it, “It was bubbling like a big Alka-Seltzer.”Media outlets from around the world began to take notice, including Johnny Carson, who, for a number of years, would invite the winners of the National Hollerin’ Contest on the Tonight Show. And, in the early ’70s, the contest was broadcast over Voice of America.”Letters came into Spivey’s Corner about hollerin’ and how it was similar to what other countries did,” remembers Sheila Frye, a 10-time champion of the ladies hollerin’ contest. “So hollerin’ is not just about Spivey’s Corner, or southeastern North Carolina — hollerin’ was used worldwide… it’s almost like a common thread that connects everyone.”Sheila Frye is a a 10-time champion of the ladies hollerin' contestSheila Frye is a a 10-time champion of the ladies hollerin' contestSheila Frye is a a 10-time champion of the ladies hollerin’ contestWhile the contest ended in 2016, hollerin’ isn’t going anywhereFor nearly 50 years, the contest lived on in Spivey’s Corner. The final contest took place in 2016, but the tradition of hollerin’ isn’t disappearing anytime soon.”I think people long to remember when things were simpler, when life was simpler,” says Frye. “It’s just something that we need to treasure because we need to know where we’re going, so we need to know our history.””Like muddy water is to electricity, hollerin’ is to communication,” says Goodman. “We want to preserve that and keep it going. To hear and listen to those distinct sounds, those lonesome sounds, those happy sounds. We want to keep that tradition alive.”Much like its past, the future of hollerin’ remains unknown in world dominated by technology. But thanks to the passion of some of Spivey’s Corner’s residents, the tradition of hollerin’ won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

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