It looked something like a tin whistle or perhaps a fife, just a 12” cylinder of nickel coated brass (later stainless steel), perpetually locked into the key of C (actually B flat), with six finger holes and a mouthpiece welded perpendicular to one end of the body, and a cork inserted at the other end. Manufactured by the now defunct Melody Flute Co. in Laurel, MD, and invented by a certain Walter D. Lanahan, it was the inexpensive instrument of choice for grade school music education programs across the nation from the 1940s through the ‘70s, and my first introduction to learning how to play music.
From first grade to (I think) fifth, a Melody flute session was programmed into every morning’s curriculum at P. S. 56 in the Bronx. I can’t remember what a Melody flute cost, only that for some small number of bucks, we received the shiny instrument, carry case, and an instruction book, “Classroom Method for Melody Flute” by Frederick Beckman. Apparently tuned with an oscilloscope, the Melody flute had excellent tone. It was also largely indestructible, except for the cork.
This elegantly simple flute was likely responsible for originating my interest in music as a whole, along with my parent’s record collection (mostly Broadway original cast recordings, period crooners, and a handful of my father’s forays into jazz: Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck), and I can recall spending many contented hours at home with it, concocting tunes or learning songs by ear from the radio, driving my brother out of the small bedroom we shared in my family’s tiny tenement apartment.
I continued to play the Melody flute well into junior high school and even high school, learning how to play old Celtic folk tunes, and also picking up a recorder along the way. I don’t remember when the Melody flute bit the dust – I think it had something to do with the cork deteriorating – but I transitioned to a ceramic flute. At around 20, I fell into the possession of a real flute, and tried teaching myself to play my small folio of pop (heavy on Todd Rundgren), show, and old British folk tunes. The flute eventually passed on, but I still like to dig out my ceramic flute now and again and play some familiar music, comfort food for the soul.