The Tale of the New
of the "Speech Crier" is an especially interesting feature of the North
Carolina custom. Such is not mentioned in the accounts of the Bohemian,
the German, and the Pennsylvania German practices. So far as the
present writer knows, it has only one recorded American parallel, to be
discussed later. The "Speech" itself would seem to be a genuine
specimen of folk poetry. Curiously enough, it imparts to the custom as
it is described a religious tone, of which both the participants and
the reporter were conscious, and this is not entirely antithetical to
the primitive idea of driving away evil spirits and, perhaps, of
invoking fertility for orchards and fields.
The report is from W. Kays Gary, in the Greensboro (NC) Daily News, Jan. 6, 1946, sec 2 page 1.
"Over in Cherryville, Gaston County, they have a method of celebrating the arrival of the new year that is probably the oldest and certainly the most unique in the country. They call it "The New Year's Shoot," when all the descendants of this German settlements oldest families get together with the 'muzzle loaders' over 100 years old and for 18 continuous hours blast out explosive greetings to the new year.
"This tradition is known to be 150 years old and perhaps older. No one knows. It was going on when the grandfather's of Cherryville's oldest citizens were in knee pants. For a very particular reason it has never been highly publicized. That was because a radio engineer was heard to remark, 'Who in hell wants to hear an old gun over the radio?' When the shooters were all set for a broadcast. They wouldn't fire a shot after that and the radio station was left in the lurch.
"When this reporter first heard of the celebration on New Year's Eve he clattered over to Cherryville just before midnight and found some 25, or 30 fieldclad men leaning against Civil War muskets, squirting tobacco juice, smoking cigars, and waiting for their 'H' hour. When the reporter's mission was made known, 'Uncle' A. Sidney Beam came over and introduced himself as "The Speech Crier. " When asked about his part in the celebration, Uncle Sidney said he had chanted the New Year's Speech for 57 years handrunning and that the reporter would hear it later.
"Came the stroke of midnight, and a blast that must rival that of a bomb, lifted the reporter's hat and plopped it in the mud. Everybody howled and the 'shoot' was on. Piling into cars carrying the reporter in the rush, the crowd headed for the country, stopping several minutes later at a home on a wooded hill known as 'the Carpenter place.' It was then that Uncle Sid called out the names of the houses' occupants and launched into his New Year's chant. It sounded weird and great and beautiful like something out of old England. .. "
The following is a complete version supplied to me by Mr. Beam himself adding, in a postscript, "I am having a record made and will send you one. The speech is meaningless unless you hear it."
Mr. Gary's account continues:
"Then once more came the booming of the guns followed by a moment of silence. There was something religious about it, one 'shooter' said, and the reporter could agree. With the firing of the last gun, one stood stock-still there on the wooded hill at 3 o'clock in the morning and saw the rising of the mists from the bottom lands heard the rumbling echoes from the rolling hills and swamplands and dying away unchallenged in the distance. Howell Stroup, tall and rugged, leaned in silence against his old blunderbuss and stared after the rumblings, his bony, powerful face silhouetted in the half moonlight, reminding an old-timer of 'Uncle' Eph', Howell's grandfather, who had years ago been an ardent follower of the shoot.
"That was the way it went all night the speech, the guns, the silence, then the food over swampland and mudgummed roads until 6 p.m. on New Year's Day, when, tired and happy with a job well done, the townspeople crowded into the 'Square' and boomed out their last salute to the New Year."