In a city where history usually shows up in its faded and patina forms, Tuesday night saw it shimmer.
Wearing a sparkling bodysuit, Lizzo stood onstage during her concert at the Capital One Arena and blew into a crystal flute that belonged to James Madison. Yes, that James Madison. The James Madison who served as the fourth president and is considered the “Father of the Constitution.”
“History is freaking cool, you guys!” the singer shouted as the crowd screamed and clapped and sent social media posts flying.
That moment, in all its glittering glory, marked an unexpected collision of the past and present.
But a day before that public performance came a series of private moments at the Library of Congress that proved powerful for those who witnessed them and led to that flute ending up in the singer’s hands at the concert. On a day when the Library was closed to the public, Lizzo spent an afternoon exploring its massive flute collection and trying out several of the historic instruments.
No media organizations were allowed to join the tour, but people who were there described the day as bringing excitement, history lessons and some impressive flute playing.
“She is amazingly talented,” said Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, who serves as the curator for the flute collection. She said she handed Lizzo more than a half-dozen different types of flutes and she could play them all.
At moments, as she played, some of the people who came with her sang and danced.
“That girl is filled with so much positive energy,” Ward-Bamford said. “It was one happy afternoon watching her enjoy and love being at the Library and Great Hall.”
The Library has nearly 2,000 flutes, the largest collection in the world. Most of those flutes were collected by physicist Dayton C. Miller and were left to the Library through his will.
“He truly believed that the public should have access to it,” Ward-Bamford said. “The collection is remarkable in its breadth and its comprehensiveness.”
One of the flutes in the collection belonged to Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia. Another was made by Miller. He crafted it out of 22-karat gold and made its keys from 18-karat gold. His collection also didn’t only include instruments. His gift to the Library also brought 3,000 rare books on the flute and 10,000 pieces of music for the instrument.
Lizzo’s tour took her into the “flute vault,” where she saw flutes made of wood, jade, ivory and other material. One flute she played was made of plexiglass at a time when the material was first invented. There is only one other flute like it in the world.
She also played the Madison flute that day for the first time. Ward-Bamford described the flute’s history as fascinating.
It was made by Claude Laurent in Paris in 1813. That date and his name are engraved on the flute. Ward-Bamford said technology has allowed researchers to discover that some of Laurent’s crystal flutes weren’t actually made of crystal, but the one he made for Madison was. A letter written by Laurent to Madison also revealed that he personally sent the flute to the president — and that the president failed to say thank you.
“Mr. President, I took the liberty of sending to you about three years ago, a crystal flute of my invention,” a translation of the letter reads. “Please allow me to express to you the desire that I would have to learn if it has reached you and if this feeble homage of my industry has been agreeable to you.”
There is also evidence that Dolley Madison saved the flute by taking it with her as she fled the White House before British troops tried to burn down Washington in 1812.
But we wouldn’t, of course, be talking about any of this if it weren’t for Lizzo. If you are a fan of hers, it’s easy to appreciate the significance of seeing her use her flute skills to revive a forgotten piece of history. But even if you’re not, it’s hard not to see what she achieved this week as impressive — she made going to the library cool.
She united self-described band nerds, history buffs and librarians, all by accepting an invite from the 14th librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, to check out the flute collection. The invite came in the form of a tweet.
“The @librarycongress has the largest flute collection in the world with more than 1,800,” Hayden tweeted on Sept 23. “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. Like your song they are ‘Good as hell.’ “
Lizzo’s reply came in all-caps.
“IM COMING CARLA!” she wrote. “AND IM PLAYIN THAT CRYSTAL FLUTE!!!!!”
Brett Zongker, a spokesperson for the Library of Congress, was there the day Lizzo played that flute and others. He said Hayden has talked about “opening up the treasure chest that is the Library of Congress and just sharing all that’s here with more people,” and Lizzo helped make that happen. She had her many fans and others suddenly thinking about the Library of Congress and the parts of our collective history it holds.
When Lizzo asked if she could play Madison’s flute at her concert, Zongker said the Library’s collection, preservation and security teams were prepared to make that happen. The flute was placed in a customized protective container and accompanied to the arena by Ward-Bamford and security.
The crowd witnessed Ward-Bamford walk the instrument onstage and hand it to Lizzo, but that moment marked only the most visible step in the security process, he said.
“I want everybody to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, y’all!” Lizzo shouted before walking the instrument carefully to the microphone and playing a few notes.
The crowd made noise then and in the hours that followed as people online continued to talk about a flute many didn’t know existed a week ago.
“We just made history tonight!” Lizzo said. “Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool!”