Louis Thomas Hardin
May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999
“I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides. I am in the regimented society, but not of it.” – Moondog, 1964
Moondog earned the title as the Viking of 6th Avenue, due the fact that he spent most of his time in New York City from the 1940s through 1972 on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Streets dressed in a cloak and Viking helmet, he had a long whispy beard, steel pointed spear. Blind from age 16, Moondog spend his time on the New York City streets in his iconic dress busking, selling music, but primarily standing still. Though he was seen as just a dirty crazy vagrant to those who passed him on the street, he had an astonishing musical career that not only created a body of musical works, but also the invention of instruments and writing of poems. Moondog is a harrowing example in a modern society obsessed with looks and airs that genius can come from those you least expect. For young composers, Moondog’s lesson is one of humility and not letting success turn one into an egotistical monster… there is an inherent peace and philosophical presence in Moondog’s works and views on life.
Because all of Moondog’s music is so wonderful, we couldn’t settle on just five pieces by him, as such, this week’s playlist features five whole albums by Moondog.
An excerpt from an official biography of Moondog is located below:
Once in a blue Moon(dog) …
September 8th last year saw the passing of one of the 20th C´s most respected musical icons. Louis T. Hardin better known as Moondog was a revered pioneer on the Avant-Garde/Minimalist scene, his revolutionary attitude towards composition and melody was lauded by such eminent notables as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, while his style and attitude drew comparisons to Harry Partch. His influence can be seen in the music of Stereolab and Moonshake among others.
Born 26th May 1916 in Maryville, Kansas, Moondog wrote all his music in braille having lost his sight in an accident involving a dynamite cap at the age of 17. He studied music at the Iowa School for the Blind and later at Memphis. He was mostly self-taught determining chord structures by ear and developing his skills and theory from books. Initially he was drawn to the percussion element of music citing that his first drum kit at the age of five was nothing more than a cardboard box. His father, a minister had once taken the young Louis to the Arapaho Sun Dance whereupon he met Chief Yellow Calf and played the buffalo skin tom-tom, and rhythmical device that would reappear in his later work.
Perhaps to some degree the legend of Moondog supersedes his music, if that is at all possible, for in 1943 he came to New York in order to be closer to the 20thC classical scene. The name Moondog didn´t occur until 1947, reflecting on how he came by the title he remembered fondly a dog he owned way back in Missouri:
“We used to howl at the moon.”
Arriving with no contacts and only one month´s rent, for the next 30 years he became something of a cultural enigma. It was during this period of flirtation with the Big Apple that the Moondog legend began. Positioning himself on 54th Street and Avenue, later to be known as Moondog corner, he would entertain crowds playing his compositions on home made drums and some portable keyboards and reciting his own poetry. His eccentricity was furthered by the fact that sporting a long beard and a spear, he wore home made clothes consisting of a robe, a Vikings helmet and leather patchwork trousers again the influence of the Indians having effect. However this unusual form of dress was to lose him prestigious contracts in die future.
As the legend would have it, musicians from the Carnegie Hall spotted Moondog just across the way from where he entertained. Impressed by what they saw they persuaded the conductor Arthur Rodzinski to let him sit in on rehearsals. It was here that Hardin was to learn about orchestration and also to witness the debut performance as a conductor of Leonard Bernstein. Moondog´s debt to Rodzinski was reciprocated by his dedication of Symphony No 50.
He became something of a celebrity when columnist Walter Winchell wrote about him in the Times. Folkways musicologist Tony Schwartz would often make field recordings of street players, such involvement with Moondog led on to several offers being made the most notable being to do a recording of children´s songs with Julie Andrews.
By all accounts he was a genial man and noted for his humour, when asked by passers by as to where he come from he would reply:
“I would tell people I was born in Sasnak …. and when they would ask where it was, I would reply that it was a mysterious place. I left it for them to work out it was Kansas in reverse.”
Legendary disc jockey Alan Freed was one of the first to pick up on the Moondog sound and found himself losing a lawsuit when he named his spot the Moondog show after the Moondog Symphony. However Freed was later to become the self styled originator of the term Rock´n´Roll.
His jazz influences were cultivated while on the streets, it was there that he met Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker, the latter remarking:
“You and I should make a record.”
Sadly though this never happened for shortly afterwards Parker died unexpectedly. Moondog paid tribute to Parker later on with “Bird´s Lament”.
By the early seventies still on the streets, it would be hard for most to imagine that this imposing street player had released albums on labels such as Mars, CBS and Prestige. The beat generation in the 60´s had welcomed Moondog with open arms seeing him as something of a rebellious icon. By this period he had performed a poetry reading with Allen Ginsberg, appeared on stage with Lenny Bruce, Tiny Tim and in films with William S. Boroughs. He was adept at making music for films and TV commercials, one of his pieces was used for the soundtrack for “Drive. She said” starring Jack Nicholson.
As for his views about music, be would only listen to his own stating that the work of others was full of “unspecified mistakes”. He considered himseIf a classicist stating his aim was to create:
“The art of concealing art, maximum effect but with minimum means”.
It is from this approach to his style of work that Philip Glass and Steve Reich hailed him as the originator of the concept of minimalism. However Moondog had his own opinion on the matter:
“Bach was doing minimal in his fugues. So what´s new?”
In 1974 be was offered a chance to play in Europe for a few months which as it turned out led him to relocating to Recklinghausen to live until his death. The suddenness of his departure led many to believe that be had died, at one even Paul Simon mourned his passing on his tv-show.
Of course Moondog hadn´t died in fact his so-called exile in Germany would lead to his most prolific period of his career. He met Ilona Goebel a music translator who gave up her job to work full time with Hardin putting onto paper what rnusic that was in his head, she eventually became his manager.
Moondog did however return to America in 1989. At the invitation of the New Music American Festival in Brooklyn, he shared the stage with Glass and Reich asked to conduct as part of the celebration of legends from the 40´s and 50´s. His conducting manner was unorthodox to say the least, taking his place at the side to play percussion. He later commented that:
“I see my relationship with them [orchestra] as being first among equals, so that there are forty conductors, each in charge of his own part.”
This return to the Big Apple marked a newly rediscovered interest in his work seeing it performed all over the world in some of the greatest settings, some of his work was even choreographed.