Historic Films News

Raiding the Music-In-Film Ark - Joe Lauro

Blurt Online News

Christian Kiefer - May 27, 2009

The cultural archivist's massive trove of historic film preserves cinema, TV and music video for posterity.

In the closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are given a brief fantasy into how we treat our history. After a long, absurd battle to retain possession of the fabled Ark of the Covenant, it ends up in the hands the American military who box it into a wooden crate and load it into a warehouse filled with infinite other such crates. Once a lost Ark and, in the end, a lost Ark redux.

My sympathy has never been with the protagonist, or with the fabled Ark, but rather with all those other boxes. What's in there? Robert Johnson's guitar? Instructions for tuning Nordic harps from the time of Beowulf? What else? I want to open those crates, rummage around them, catalog them so they can be easily searched, find more stuff to add to the collection (which, in this writer's case, would be less religious and more musical).

Joe Lauro likely had much the same impulse. For him, it was 78rpm records at first, an obsession that started when he was twelve years old and extended on into his adult life, expanding and changing until he landed a job helping run a small archive. From there, Lauro went solo, opening his own popular culture film archive (with a focus on music and related media): The Historic Films Library.

If you've seen virtually any well-made music and/or pop culture documentary in recent years then you've been privy to Lauro's own collection of seemingly infinite crates (of film, not of Arks). The footage is almost inconceivable in both quantity and breadth, including backstage film from the set of The Wizard of Oz, the entire run of The Ed Sullivan Show, 1968's Live from the Bitter End variety show, the Murry "The K" Archive, the D.A. Pennebaker Archive, and the collection of the Center for Southern Folklore (just to name a few).

"I see it as a kind of mission," Lauro says, via telephone from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. "I'm a musicologist. I'm interested in letting people know about some of this music. It's the greatest contribution that [America] has given the world and it's just not taken that seriously by people in this country." Lauro has not only accumulated this material but he has preserved it, digitizing it for safety and ease of transfer, and has cataloged it so that filmmakers and researchers can put their fingers on the right material quickly and easily.

Indeed, the archival cataloging that Historic Films has accomplished is perhaps Lauro's most important contribution to the art of filmmaking. Ponder the idea that, when making a film about Muddy Waters (for example), one does not only need footage of Muddy himself but of the environs that the great bluesman inhabited. "We have footage of the nightclubs in the 1950s and 1960s where Muddy Waters performed," Lauro notes. "The venues, the parties, the places where this music was created. This material is all part of the story."

All of that is indexed via the Internet so that researchers (and you too, fair reader) can find what you're looking for. John Lennon and Frank Zappa performing "Scumbag" in 1969? Joe has it. How about Honey Boy Edwards (see the image, above) and Johnny Shines performing in the same year? Yes, Joe has that too. And, of course, much more.

"I've gone out of my way to accumulate as much of this material so that it can be used by other people who are doing documentaries or need this kind of thing," Lauro says. Indeed, it is his mission and his life's work. This is a religious quest of a sort -not for Lauro (who might balk at the description), but for us as a culture and, at that, not only America but the world. How much of this material might be lost to history were it not for his efforts?

In my imagination, I want there to be a dusty, crate-filled warehouse that this material lives in and so I'll continue to think of it in this way. For you though, take your hat and your whip to www.historicfilms.com and type a few words into the search box. You'll be surprised at what Joe Lauro has put his hands on and for the right project (and a modest fee), he just might allow you to put your hands on it too.