Lizzo Plays James Madison’s Crystal Flute at Library of Congress

When Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden heard that pop star Lizzo planned to be on tour in Washington, DC, at the end of September, she wasted no time inviting the classically trained flautist to stop by and check out the Library of Congress’s collection of some 1,700 flutes.

Lizzo playing crystal flute at Library of Congress
Photo and video below by Library of Congress

When Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden heard that pop star Lizzo planned to be on tour in Washington, DC, at the end of September, she wasted no time inviting the classically trained flautist to stop by and check out the Library of Congress’s (LC) collection of some 1,700 flutes.

“The @librarycongress has the largest flute collection in the world,” Hayden tweeted. “It incl Pres James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute. @lizzo we would love for you to come see it and even play a couple when you are in DC next week.”

“IM COMING CARLA!” Lizzo responded, “AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!”

Most of the collection was donated to LC in 1941 by Dayton C. Miller, a renowned physicist, astronomer, and flute collector. The instrument in question, a crystal flute with silver joints, was made by French clockmaker Claude Laurent, who presented it to Madison for his second inauguration.

Lizzo arrived at LC on September 26 and was given a tour of the flute vault by Hayden and the Music Division staff (see the Horn Book interview with LC staff about Lizzo's visit). Music Division curators had given the flute a once-over ahead of time to make sure it could be played safely. Lizzo took it and played a few brief measures before picking up a less fragile flute to serenade the staff and researchers.

But Lizzo wasn’t finished with the Madison flute. She asked to play it at her concert at the Capitol One Arena the following night, and LC’s collection, preservation and security teams mobilized to make sure it was safely transported and secured during the show. Library curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford brought the instrument onstage herself, handing it to Lizzo.

“I want everybody to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, y’all!” Lizzo told the crowd, which roared its approval. Holding it carefully, she admitted, “I’m scared”—then played a few trills and twerked.

Fans and critics alike took to Twitter to discuss the moment. Detractors found fault with her revealing outfit and her dance moves being disrespectful to the instrument’s legacy and history, and the fact that she only played several notes on the flute before handing it back.

But Lizzo’s admirers offered kudos for shining a spotlight on a piece of LC’s collection, the mashup of archival collections and pop culture, and incorporating the flute that belonged to Madison—an enslaver—into a contemporary act for an audience of all races, ages, and musical tastes. Twitter commenters also applauded Hayden for reaching out to Lizzo, making good on her vow, when she first stepped into the role, to make LC’s treasures accessible to a wider audience.

“We just made history tonight!” Lizzo called out to her concert audience after handing the flute back to Ward-Bamford. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool!”

 

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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