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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edward Stephenson, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Maintaining rhythm is a key element of a tobacco auctioneer's job

Rhythm is the most important part of selling tobacco, Stephenson explains. A successful auctioneer moves from bid to sale, and from row to row, smoothly. The auctioneer uses a trademark chant to keep this rhythm alive; Stephenson practiced his chant as he drove a tractor in his family's tobacco field, and his father helped him hone his timbre and timing.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edward Stephenson, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0193. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Everybody seems to focus on the chant, that the auctioneer has, what's the most important part of selling tobacco?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
I'd say the most important part of selling tobacco would be catching the bids and at the same time getting into a rhythm where you sell it and move on to the next pile. Rather than trying to . . . . . . You know if you stand there they'll keep bidding, but you got to be fast enough to where they're bidding one penny at the time, if they bid a time or two and they know you're going to go ahead and sell it, they'll go ahead and put their top dollar to it and you sell it and go on. But I'd say the most important part of the auctioneer would be catching the bid, knocking the pile, selling that one and immediately moving to the next one. Not stopping, keeping your rhythm from pile to pile to pile to pile. Instead of a hacky form of stop-go, stop-go, stop-go. Keep going. It's not really how fast you get to the other end of the row, you just get a good rhythm, kind of like a sewing machine, you know [makes rhythmic sewing machine-like noises.] Or maybe a two cylinder motor [makes motor noises]
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
When you got that chant to sell a couple of piles, was it a couple of piles or a whole row?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
No, it was what we call a round. A round is one row down and one row up.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Ok.
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
So I got to sell a round.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
Had you been practicing on a chant before that?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Oh yeah. I'd be . . . . . . We raised tobacco also and I'd put two pieces of tape on a tractor tire and as it flipped over, you know as you're going through the field. I'd be driving the tractor in the field and put a piece of tape, here and on the other half of the tire another piece of tape and as it came over I would knock them. You know, [chants] 75Reynolds! 75 American! And I got my chant going that way. And I'd sell stalks of Tobacco, as you're going down the truck row. Sell light poles riding down the highway. Mostly just watching my daddy and my uncles.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
How did they help you in selling tobacco?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Certainly they encouraged me and told me I was the best that's ever been [Laughter] . They gave me my first chance, basically. Of course they would school me, tell me when I was right and wrong, different things. Just schooled me through. And I had a lot of buyers that helped me. The buyers can hurt you and help you also. You know, it's just like any new job. If you get along with the people they can help you or hurt you. They can make it hard on you or easy on you. A lot of the old timers took me under their wing and helped me along. They didn't really chastise me real bad, when I was getting started. They encouraged, and helped me and was real, maybe more vivid with their bids, where I could really see them, hold up a five and a four and a two, where I could really see it. Of course the honey moon doesn't last for ever but that was a great help to me.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So they made it easy for you to see their bids?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
Yeah, they just helped me along and encouraged me. They knew I was green and didn't know what I was doing but they didn't treat me that way, so much. They wanted me to [succeed] also. They wanted me to do good, and they didn't want to discourage me. So as I said a while ago, 90% is the nerve to do it. Maybe if I had got in the first row and they had said, Ah you can't do it. You're missing the bids. You can't do it. You just won't never made it! They never told me that. You did good. Keep trying . Come back tomorrow. I won't you to sell some more. Maybe next time. My daddy would tell me to tone down and not start out at such a high pitch, because it strains you too bad.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
So he helped you with your chanting?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
He taught me to get my voice to a more relaxed feeling. In stead of starting out [on] too high of a note. If you strain yourself you're going to give out. And he taught me how to breath and rest yourself and he taught me how to get along with people.
WILLIAM MANSFIELD:
What did he teach you about that?
EDWARD STEPHENSON:
He taught me that you could "catch more flies with sugar than you can [with] salt. And again, he also taught me to be honest and to try and be as polite as you could to somebody. But also "stand your ground." You know? If you're right, you're right. If you're wrong, try to correct it and don't make the mistake over and over and over. I remember coming home, one day, I told my daddy, I said, Daddy, I sold tobacco today and I didn't make a mistake all day. He said, Well you didn't do a damn thing then. I said What do you mean? He said If you went all day, son and didn't make a mistake, something is wrong. I wanted to impress him, you know? And he said That's impossible. You don't go all day and not make a mistake. Don't tell me that. Just tell me you made one and corrected it and you know what not to do now.