Leonard Emmanuel

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One thing should be established immediately about this man. In fact, it should be shouted out in a voice loud enough to be heard in several counties, and Leonard Emanuel is just the man to do it. The…
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One thing should be established immediately about this man. In fact, it should be shouted out in a voice loud enough to be heard in several counties, and Leonard Emanuel is just the man to do it. The message is that Leonard Emanuel of Sampson County, NC, is not the classical musician of the same name. The North Carolina Emanuel has had his own share of glory and fame because of his musical talents. He was the 1971 winner of the Hollerin' Contest in his state's Spivey's Corner, an event that has gotten national media attention and sent its winners onto such stages as The Tonight Show. Severe shock was sometimes the result of these appearances, as even the most blasé studio audience isn't quite ready for the sounds of old-time Appalachian hollerin', especially being produced by the likes of the short and shriveled-up Emanuel.

Once a musician gets this sort of fame, his name becomes one of the main things he has, these all-important conglomerations of identifying syllables representing the main way civilization keeps track of its musicians besides listening to their music. In cyberspace, an artist's name becomes a sort of epoxy, the more common name the more stronger the glue, more and more related and unrelated credits becoming fastened to the subject until in some cases the effect is like a snowball rolling downhill. Leonard Emanuel is not such a common name, but there it is in black and white, on the online catalog of a major compact disc seller: the Hollerin' album, featuring outrageous tracks by more than a half-dozen of Spivey Corner's most famous champions, is listed alongside performances of the classical works of Mozart, Weber, Puccini, and Brahms. Not that it wouldn't be nice to have an artist with such versatility on hand, especially for example if an orchestra conductor was also a farmer, and wanted to call the hogs in the middle of the third movement of a symphony. Except Emmanuel doesn't consider hog callin' to be hollerin', a controversial point of view in the study of this unique music. Philosophically, classical music and "hollerin'" couldn't be farther apart, the former often a lavish tool of the wealthy while the latter is the domain of the common folk that some listeners might even question is even music at all. It certainly is one of the most functional types of music in existence, going well beyond the traditional role as a background for various events. A young girl in serious danger of drowning used hollers in order to be heard by Emanuel himself, who was nearby. The point isn't that the sounds of someone screaming for help are an audible phenomenon which hopefully someone in the immediate vicinity will pick up on; because this wasn't mere screaming, this was hollerin'. The sounds are more precisely formed, created a certain way in order to carry for far longer distances than a mere scream, and in the case of the traditional types of "distress hollers," identifiable as to meaning as well. The girl in this true story had been out for a day on the river with her two brothers and her father when their boat capsized. By the time Emmanuel rescued her, she was clinging to the bottom of the upturned craft and the two younger boys had already drowned.

Emanuel grew up with hollerin' present in many stages of day to day life, not just in case of emergencies. A hollerin' performance would take place in the morning, just to let the neighbors know who was up and about. He also had a complete repertoire of sounds he utilized for various purposes with his hunting dogs. Yet the existence of so many purely musical pieces in his repertoire of hollers runs contrary to the point of view that all hollerin' is practical, with no real intended entertainment purposes. Emanuel sings gospel numbers and old-time songs such as "Freckle-Faced Liza Jane"; he also performs a type of virtuoso vocalese involving fast-moving passages of yodeling and falsetto whooping. "Ditty" is the name of his piece in this style on the Hollerin' collection, and listeners unfamiliar with the dustiest parts of the Appalachian musical closet may want to take a deep breath before listening for the first time. The performance of "Ditty" seems to be particularly interesting to musicologists, who have compared it with other field recordings such as the famous "Fox Chase" by Sonny Terry. Like many of the vocal performers from this area of North Carolina who have won honors at Spivey's Corner, Emmanuel seems to have been part of a dying breed. Although a few younger performers have come up in the '90s that finally mastered many of the old-time hollerin' traditions, many of the competitors were simply distasteful to the old timers, engaging in a kind of manic posturing and screwball noise-making that has nothing to do with hollerin', wouldn't save a soul in times of distress, and certainly wouldn't get the hogs in.

Oh, "There's a difference in hog callin' and hollerin'," Emmanuel reminds us. "Hollerin' is a different thing altogether. It's not yodeling, it's not calling hogs. Hollerin' is a whole lot different." One of the later-day hollerin' champions was the Chapel Hill waiter Tony Peacock, who has appeared several times on the David Letterman Show. Peacock also grew up on a farm in Sampson County, just ten miles from Spivey's Corner, and has recalled in interviews the day he and his dad were fishing on the South River, "and heard someone unleashing some remarkable hollerin' from somewhere upstream." Finally, after quite a tour de force vocal performance, around the bend came a boat piloted by none other than Leonard Emanuel.