O.B. Jackson

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Apparently the Jacksons of Sampson County have plenty to shout about. By the second half of the 20th century, the family had established some type of dynasty in a field of music in which the participants…
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Apparently the Jacksons of Sampson County have plenty to shout about. By the second half of the 20th century, the family had established some type of dynasty in a field of music in which the participants can boast of saving lives, not making hit records; perhaps meaning a greater glory awaits them then, say, the sibling members of the Jackson Five. O.B. Jackson's brother Dewey Jackson was the first ever winner of the Hollerin' Contest held annually since 1969 in Spivey's Corner, NC, and O.B. Jackson himself yelled his way to victory in 1972. In the '90s, by which time it had been practically set in stone as a local philosophy that no representatives of the younger generation would ever learn to holler properly, along came another descendent of this mighty-lunged breed, Paul Jackson, first-prize winner at least three times during that decade.

Hollerin' may not be as popular as rock & roll, but the Spivey's Corner winners are subject to worldwide media coverage during the event, and inevitably wind up performing on shows such as The Tonight Show, whose host Jay Leno is a great fan of Appalachian music in general. Some pundits may think the hollerin' skill is in the Jackson genes, but it seems more realistic that it is a case of practice making perfect. The schedule of O.B. Jackson would make even the most ambitious, dedicated practicing instrumentalist seem like a lazy bones. "Every morning at five a.m., O.B. Jackson gets up and hollers to call the cows in," boast the liner notes to the Rounder collection naturally entitled Hollerin'. Whichever of the Jackson brothers is up first will also perform a special "wake-up" holler, and these are just the preliminaries in full days of activity in which there might be a holler for almost every purpose. Some of the earliest hollerin' the brothers have recalled is their father and uncle calling for them to bring water into the turpentine woods, or out to parched men working in the fields. The "Turpentine Woods Holler" is one of Dewey Jackson's recordings of these memories. Of course, there are also the distress hollers, and every old-timer has a story about someone's life being saved only because their hollerin' technique was good enough to carry to a distant set of ears. Perhaps of even greater importance, especially if one is in the habit of dining on squirrel meat, is the O.B. Jackson claim that he can holler in such a way as to approximate the mating call of a squirrel, and furthermore actually trick a squirrel with the hots, luring it to its death. Okay, it is really just another way of singing for your supper, but pretty impressive nonetheless. However, it is his philosophy that tricking a squirrel in such a way is bad karma. Real musical communication with animals has to be based on some kind of material reward, usually food. No matter how wonderfully a cow holler is performed, if there isn't some kind of treat for the cow on the other end, the animals will no longer respond. Or as O.B. Jackson says, "You just call to be a' callin', though, he ain't gonna pay you no mind."

As strong as the local traditions were about hollerin' in this area of North Carolina, the contest itself didn't spring up until several locals created the event initially as a joke in 1969. Eventually it became part of a large summer weekend fair, not only the loudest part but also the one attracting the most interest. The recordings released by Rounder have seeped into every nook and cranny of the underground-radio world, played by disc jockeys from Dr. Demento to Bizarro, and have also been sampled on a variety of avant-garde and exotic rap recording projects. Both of the Jackson brothers are considered among the finest creators of a vocal style in which there are rapid shifts between the natural and falsetto voice, an effect akin to yodeling but different. Some critics see a similarity between this type of singing and the multi-octave throat singing of Central Asian Tuvan singers. Long ago but not as far away, similar hollers were recorded as early as 1944, by a Georgia man named Frances Harper. Much of O.B. Jackson's material is also cut right out of the old-time music quilt, such as his recording of the classic "Shortnin' Bread," and a medley entitled "Old Timey Hollers." He also performed a wicked "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," which along with the version by Bahamian guitarist Skip James, represents some of the most demented Christmas music ever recorded. Fans of poultry may be partial to "Big Fat Turkey," thematically linked to Thelonious Monk's "Stuffy Turkey," while family types will like the brotherly love so strongly expressed in "O.B. Calls Dewey."