It was history more than 200 years in the making. While performing her Tuesday night set on “The Special Tour” in Washington, D.C., superstar performer and classically trained flautist Lizzo treated fans to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle: playing a crystal flute owned by former U.S. President James Madison that is currently held by the Library of Congress (LC).
“I just twerked and played James Madison's crystal flute from the 1800s," she said onstage to roars of applause. "We just made history tonight! Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool. History is freaking cool you guys!”
The possibility of the moment had been teased for days by LC after Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden invited Lizzo to view LC’s flute collection via Twitter.
“@lizzo, we would love for you to come see it and even play a couple when you are in DC next week,” she tweeted on September 23 along with pictures of several flutes in the collection. “Like your song they are ‘Good as hell.’”
“IM COMING CARLA!” Lizzo enthusiastically replied. “AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!”
The crystal flute is part of LC's collection of more than 1,800 flutes—the largest such collection in the world—and its origin is a mysterious one. It was made by French craftsman Claude Laurent in 1813 and gifted to Madison in honor of his second inauguration as president. On August 24, 1814, just before Washington D.C. was set ablaze by British troops during the War of 1812, First Lady Dolley Madison fled the White House with several valuable artifacts, including an iconic portrait of George Washington. It’s plausible, though unknown, that the flute was one of the items rescued by the first lady.
The flute’s rarity and preciousness can’t be understated. As detailed on LC's blog,
“[Laurent] patented a leaded glass flute in 1806. Most flutes at the time were made of wood or ivory, but Laurent’s glass invention held its pitch and tone better during changes in temperature and humidity. They were popular for a few decades, but he was almost alone in making them and they faded from popularity after flutes began to be made of metal in the mid-19th century. Today, only 185 of his glass flutes are known to survive, and his crystal flutes are even rarer. LC holds 17 Laurent flutes, by far the largest collection in the world.”
Of LC’s Laurent flutes, only two are made of crystal, and for something so rare, preservation and security are top priority. Ahead of Lizzo’s performance, library curators and security officers worked to ensure the item’s safe handling, including transporting it in a customized protective container.
The fourth U.S. president, James Madison grew up on a plantation that employed slave labor and was the first to suggest what became known as the Three-fifths Compromise, which determined the counting of enslaved persons as 3/5 of a person for taxation and representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madison is also credited with the idea of creating a congressional library. That his crystal flute was played by a Black female performer in collaboration with the Librarian of Congress—the first African American and first woman to hold the position—is an ironic and symbolic intersection of fate.
Lizzo’s crystal flute performance in front of thousands of fans brought history to life and is a prime example of how libraries preserve our history and make it available to all.
“It’s about damn time” we got to hear it.
Photo: Lizzo plays one of the flutes in the Library of Congress’s flute vault. Credit: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.