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For Rev. Leslie Callahan, scholar, teacher, preacher

Part 1. For those of you familiar with the pageantry of charismatic African American churches, you might recognize that the clip of video I’ll discuss over the next couple of postings was probably recorded on December 31, 1997.  Black Pentecostalism is known for its adherence to rituals structure in which the Holy Spirit “moves.”  This movement is typically confirmed by the observable vocal and corporeal responses of congregants, affirmed and regulated by presiding officiates, and facilitated by the anointing of immensely talented singers, preachers, mistresses and masters of ceremony, and instrumentalists.

These individuals offer their gifts to edify, encourage and entreat their listeners to “hang in there” by adhering to their church’s doctrine and teachings.  While this latter requirement can lead to a kind of social insularity, the cultural forms produced in these spaces often express myriad kinds of creativity. Skillful humorists, virtuoso instrumentalists, prolific songwriters, exceptional vocalists and speakers superbly gifted in a rhetorical tradition of black speech forms abound from pulpit to pew.

Yet few of these performers can occupy all of these cultural positions with the confidence, proficiency and command of Twinkie Clark.  And the fact that she has achieved this reputation of supremacy as a woman makes her even more of a marvel.  None of this is news.  Clark has rocked the church world as a prodigy for years since her days as an acolyte of her mother, the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark.  Their positions as culture bearers and standard keepers speak to the largely unspoken yet undeniably historically important role that women have held in the African American church.  If the church has traditionally had men with a white-knuckled grip on visible “leadership,” then women of the church have provided not only a sizable portion of the laity but have dictated as well much of the church’s aesthetic direction.

Let’s break it down.

In this clip, we see Twinkie crisscross the expressive terrain of the ritual, an event apparently celebrating New Years 1998.  The congregation is there to worship and give thanks; they also expect to be entertained with masterful musicianship and humor, to receive a hopeful message, to have their past contextualized and celebrated, and to get hope for the upcoming year. Twinkie delivers the goods like none other.

She’s the special attraction of the event.  An old family friend and collaborator Rev. Richard White, dressed in a spectacular purple suit, introduces with lengthy accolades while someone provides tasteful, almost sentimental chord passages beneath him [0:00-3:43].  She’s described as a musical example to youth.  He emphasizes as well that she “can go” with best of the preachers.  As the camera pans over to the band’s space we see and hear Twinkie at the organ.  She swells its volume over the enthusiastic applause, just as any well-trained organist in this tradition would at this moment.  What is somewhat ironic is that the applause is for her.  Yet she knows that this kind of musical transition is necessary to mark the beginning of the next frames of the ritual: her performance.

The entire performance captured here is organized around several cells that shape the emotional contour of the event and reveal her remarkable skill set.  In Cell 1, she offers demure and decorous salutations to church leadership while at the same time accompanying herself with diatonic hymn-like chords (Charles Tindley meets Bach).  She is respectful, careful to give “honor to whom honor is due.”  What she does in the remaining cells is classic Twinkie Clark: manage all aspects of the sonic environment to conform to the horizon of expectations, and at the same time, pushes at the edges of them.  Speaking with declarative emphasis, though not melodically she says the following, forecasting the call and response structure that will permeate the next cell:

Cell 2

Vocal:             But as I sit here again to let you know,

Organ:            >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Vocal:             That out of all I been through,

Organ:                                                                >>>>>>>>>>>>>

Vocal:  God’s got a blessing waiting for me.

Organ:                                                                 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Stay tuned for part 2 on Twinkie Clark’s performance: “Ninety-Eight is gonna be great!”

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