The old men huddled at the edge of the stage in their folding chairs like a line of banty roosters with their feathers ruffled against the rain.

They sat patiently as one by one the younger men and the ladies took their turn at the microphone: the two-fingered whistler, the conch-shell blower, the fox-horn tooter; and then on to the hollerers, the siren-caller, the Tarzan-yeller, the lady with the peanut hat and the chihuahua, and the hymn-hollering eventual winner, Robey Morgan of Wendell, N.C.

But as Gene Tyree, a 'coon hunter from Fayetteville had said earlier, Saturday's contest was really for old men. For the 11th year they had come back, those not too infirm with age or hoarse with having hollered at network TV crews and local press all week long, to Spivey's Corner for the 11th Annual National Hollerin' Contest.

At 74, Leonard Emanuel was not the oldest of them. But the former contest winner was perhaps the smallest and the frailest. "I expect," he murmured from his chair, "they're doing the best they can over there. If they keep on practicing, why, they'll get it."

Emanuel listened wordlessly as 26 year-old Danny Jackson announced his hollering slection: "One holler honoring the old ways and another for the new." Jackson hollered "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and for contrast, "Jesus Christ Superstar." The crowd yelled appreciatively.

Soon came Emanuel's turn. Contest rules forbid former champions from competing again; so Emanuel's was just a demonstration holler. Two younger men took him by the elbows and steered him gently to the microphone. The crowd of about 1,400 - huddled under raincoats in the open field, and sodden with the downpour that had fallen since early morning - drew itself into a respectful hush.

Emanuel leaned forward slightly. He opened his mouth. Out came a sound that could have been a distress holler, a holler to be given from an automobile, a holler to stop rabbits in a field, a lovesick holler or a plain howdy-do holler.

The holler went something like "Hooo, Uh, Hooo, Uh, Hooo." Writers have praised it as the "warbling whoop." It was like the sound made by 20 calliopes in as many keys with all the stops open.

The crowd thundered its response. Emanuel, his hollering done for another year, tottered back to his chair on the tent-covered stage.

Hollering, as people here like to say, used to be as natural as eating breakfast. It is a form of communication that predates telephones, radios, TV and other conveniences which have slowly pushed it into obscurity.

Hollers are free-wheeling affairs that include blood-curdling screeches, melodious yodels, entire spoken songs and practically any other noise human vocal chords can come up with.

Historically, hollering had as many variations as there were times of the day. Of course, "the best day for hollering," Herman Oliver, 70, another former champion, would say, "is a clear, dry day when the smoke is rising straight up from the chimney."

There were all manner of hollers. "We had a holler for the cows, a holler for the pigs, and a holler to call the nanny goat," Oliver explained. The womenfolk would holler in their men at dinnertime. If a person fell down a well, he would give a distress holler.

Or, "sometimes, after we'd made dinner by lamplight and eaten, I'd slip away with the mule, and holler on the way to my sweetheart's house to let her know I was coming." The holler could sound like a yodel, a song, a whoop, or any way it needed to.

"Now, Yankees, they're the ones who might mistake it for screaming," Oliver explained. "But screaming - that's what you do when someone got you by the legs and they're hanging you down a sewer pipe. Get my meaning?"

"The way people carry on sometimes, you'd think all anyone ever did here in Spivey's Corner was walk around hollering," said Nancy Page, a young girl who'd stopped by Brocks grocery on her way back from the contest.

However, until the first annual event in 1969, the self-styled "Hollerin' Capital of the World" was not even called Spivey's Corner, but was only an eyeblink highway junction, marked only by a pickle factory, a general store and one bar and grill. It was noted on highways maps as West X-Roads.

Ermon Godwin is a silver-haired, bespectacled banker who lives in the nearby township of Dunn. Godwin organized the first hollering almost as a joke. "My friend John G. Thomas, a radio man from Dunn, had made himself a tape of some oldtime hollers, and we got to making fun of it on the air one day." Thomas then suggested they stage a contest, and suddenly the joke became reality.

The first hollering, in 1969, drew 5,000 people, and by last year attendance had swollen to double that number. Champion hollerers began to appear on "The Tonight Show"; the contest was featured on Voice of America and Charles Kuralt's On the Road.

Older people like Mrs. Herman Oliver remember when the festivities included fodder pulls and corn shuckings, and at the bottom of a 20-foot pile of corn ears, a jug of apple brandy: "When we reached the bottom of that pile, people might take a nip. And they might, just for the joy of it, commence to hollerin' together."

But most kids today, Mrs. Oliver finds, don't understand hollering. "They think it's all in a squeal and a motion. But it's not how much noise you make - it's what you can communicate." And now Mrs. Oliver's own son-in-law cannot even holler in a pig.

In the past there were occasional contest hitches - like last year, when competing frogs sat in stubborn silence throughout a special croaking event. But always the weather had been sunnily cooperative. Not this year.

The hollering fans had to slog through annkle-deep muck, sampling chicken and ribs, listening to a country music band, and waiting out the weather for the main event.

The bad weather scuttled some of the scheduled events, like the corn shucking, altogether. But there were still eight entries in the prestigious final hollering - enough to make a show of it.

Judges eventually awarded third place to Danny Jackson, who obliged with a reprise of his original selection. Second place went to another younger man, Charles Wood, the self-proclaimed mayor of the fictional town of Lizard Lick, N.C.

But first prize belonged to Robey Morgan, a former used-car salesman and a gospel music promoter, at 64 almost an old-timer. He is the first non-farmer to win.

Morgan took as his selection the hymn "Showers of Blessings."

"The Lord spoke to me right before I went on stage," Morgan said later, "and solid told me what to holler. And I'd never even hollered it before . . . showers of blessing, that's what we've here all right."

It was also, pointed out one of the distinguished panel of judges, the fact that "Morgan evidently knew what he was doing. He gave his holler just like the old-tihers holler, and that's what real hollerin' is all about." CAPTION: Illustration 1, no caption; Picture, Robey Morgan winner of the 11th Annual National Hollerin' Contest, by UPI; Illustration2, no caption