The return of Sister Flute

The peculiar faux messianic quality of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign dawned on observers this week including Charles Krauthammer, Dean Barnett, and (in his own way) Mark Steyn. Obama presents himself as the candidate who can redeem the time. It is easy to mistake (as I have) Obama’s messianism for vacuity. But the messianism has become unmistakable.
At the hastily assembled rally at UCLA a few weeks ago, Michelle Obama presented her husband as the only candidate who stood to cure our sick souls. Her claims on his behalf only made express the implications of his own more anodyne rhetoric.
By contrast with faiths demanding a genuine commitment, Obama’s only demands your vote. More befitting Peter Pan than a presidential campaign, it’s a juvenile appeal that may explain some of Obama’s popularity among younger voters. Among other things, Obama seems to be leading a children’s crusade.
Jim Vicevich and James Taranto have compiled an impressive roster of fainting spells generated by Obama’s campaign appearances. Vicevich and Taranto raise a question of fakery; Taranto also cites Larry David’s likening of the phenomenon to Sinatra’s bobby soxers. I think David is close. In the context of Obama’s messianic appeal, the phenomenon seems to represent the return of Sister Flute from the gospel shows of yore. Gospel performers such as Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers routinely sought to elicit the appearance of Sister Flute in their audience. Describing the Stirrers at work, Daniel Wolff explains:

Five men in crisp white suits stand shoulder to shoulder, ready to go to work. In front of them is a single microphone. Their white suits and white shirts and white-tipped shoes shine so brightly that you can barely see their faces, but even so and even at a distance, the four men in the back are clearly older. They stand in a semi-circle, like a crescent moon, with the fifth–the youngster–in the middle.
The work they’re about to do is very precise: they are going to try to bring the divine spirit down into this room. And the measurement of their success is equally precise. Out beyond the microphone sits a congregation of eager people dressed nearly as sharply as the men on stage. Amongst them–amongst the extended families, the grandparents, the fidgety children, the adolescents eyeing each other from pew to pew–there are women of a certain age who go by the generic name of Sister Flute. If the men in the white suits do their job right, Sister Flute will start to moan. She may stand where she is and wave one hand in the air, or rock her head back till her broad brimmed Sunday hat threatens to drop off. And if the men are truly successful, if they shout the house, Sister Flute’s moans will turn to shrieks. Her legs will stiffen, and the heels of her best shoes will start to drum the floor, and, as the spirit gathers, she may collapse, or throw herself into the arms of the deacons, all the time shouting the praises of an almighty and present God.

As Peter Guralnick reports in his biography of Cooke, “Nearer to Thee” and “Be With Me, Jesus” were the “sticks” with which Cooke and the Stirrers summoned the appearance of Sister Flute. Quoting Stirrer S.R. Crain, Guralnick adds that the congregation would form a line in front of the Stirrers “to keep Sister Flute off of us. Because she came for us, she meant it, she wasn’t playing. She just wanted to [touch] that boy. Everybody loved that boy.”
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