In the annals of modern popular music, one does not find a surfeit of flautists. Tim Weisberg, in partnership with singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, did score a modest his or two in the seventies. More incongruously, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson set his band apart with his decision to take up the flute not long before their earliest performances. But today, outside the realm of orchestral music, there is surely no higher-profile flautist than Lizzo. Though best known as a pop singer, she continues to put to use the flute skills she honed at the University of Houston, without which she wouldn’t have been able to handle a precious piece of American history.
Last month, writes the Library of Congress’ April Slayton, one of that institution’s librarians Carla Hayden “saw that the one and only Lizzo was coming to D.C. for a concert.” Given that “the Library has the world’s largest flute collection,” Hayden took the opportunity to point out that fact to the pop star on Twitter. “One of about 1,700 flutes in the collection, she teased, is the crystal flute made for President James Madison by Claude Laurent — a priceless instrument that Dolley Madison rescued from the White House in April 1814 as the British entered Washington, DC during the War of 1812.. Might she want to drop by and play a few bars?”
Indeed she did, with results you can see in the video above: at the Library itself, Lizzo tries out one of the collection’s many flutes; then she plays the crystal flute itself on onstage at Capitol One Arena, having been handed it by the instrument’s own security detail. “It’s like playing out of a wine glass,” she tells her thrilled audience. One wonders if the comparison would ever have occurred to its first owner: “It’s not clear if Madison did much with the flute other than admire it,” Slayton writes, “but it became a family heirloom and an artifact of the era.” Now it has become a uniting symbol of American culture past and present: however forward-looking the Founding Fathers were, we can safely say they never imagine twerking.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.