Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue
Los Angeles: Process Media, 2007
Louis Thomas Hardin, Jr. (1916–1999), known as Moondog, was an American composer, musician, poet, pamphleteer, and capital “p” Personality.
Hardin stepped onto history’s stage in 1943 as a blind street musician and beggar in Manhattan. In 1947, the year he began to seriously compose music, he took the name Moondog after Lindy, the dog on his family’s farm in Hurley, Missouri who always howled at the moon.
Robert Scotto’s Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue is an authorized biography based on extensive interviews and other documents that Moondog made available. It is a well-written, highly entertaining, and sometimes downright inspiring tale of a creative genius who triumphed over adversities that would have destroyed lesser men.
Moondog had a striking appearance: tall and handsome, with long hair and a beard, he wore unusual clothing of his own manufacture and design. Many found him a “Christ-like” figure, which he found intensely annoying, as he had rejected Christianity in his late teens. Eventually, he quashed the Jesus comparisons by creating a Viking costume complete with horned helmet and spear.
Moondog had an intensely charismatic personality. But he first became known because of his unusual appearance and constant presence on the streets of Manhattan, where he played his music, recited his poems (which resemble Nietzsche’s aphorisms, Zen koans, and nursery rhymes), and just talked with passers-by. Columnists looking for an item or reporters looking for a story began to mention him in the papers, which caused more people to seek him out. Soon he was the darling of various avant-garde musical and artistic circles, probably for mostly the wrong reasons.
Here is a brief appearance in The Moving Finger (1963), a “Beatnik flick” from YouTube:
Over the years, Moondog came to know writers like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg; jazz musicians and composers like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Benny Goodman; classical composers like Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Steve Reich, Philip Glass; conductors Arturo Toscanini, Artur Rodzinski, and Leonard Bernstein; popular musicians like Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and Elvis Costello; and celebrities like Marlin Brando, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Muhammed Ali, and José Ferrer. One night in the ’60s he shared a Greenwich Village stage with Tiny Tim and Lenny Bruce.
At the age of 16, Louis Hardin, Jr. was blinded by a blasting cap carelessly discarded by a railroad crew. He began earnestly to study music, which was then as now one of the few careers open to the blind. He studied piano, violin, viola, and organ and began listening to classical recordings and radio broadcasts. He enjoyed the patronage of a number of dedicated teachers who recognized his talents. When he moved to New York, he was taken under the wing of Artur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who gave him liberal access to the orchestra and its rehearsals.
Moondog may be the only street musician and beggar who had recording contracts with major labels. By 1949, he was making his first 78 rpm recordings. In the 1950s, he released a number of lps, including Moondog and His Friends (Epic, 1953), Moondog (Prestige, 1953), More Moondog (Prestige, 1956), The Story of Moondog (Prestige, 1957), and Tell It Again (Angel/Capital, 1957), a delightful children’s album and the recording debut of Julie Andrews. In 1969, Columbia Masterworks released Moondog (Columbia, 1969) followed by Moondog 2 (Columbia, 1971).
In 1974, Moondog moved to Germany, where he lived the last 25 years of his life. He arrived as a beggar and a street musician. In 1976, he met Ilona Goebel, with whose family he lived the rest of his life. She became his manager and amanuensis, who mastered the difficult and time-consuming art of translating Moondog’s scores, which were encoded in Braille, into conventional musical notation. Ilona gave Moondog the environment and assistance necessary to allow him to compose steadily.
During his European years, Moondog enjoyed growing recognition as a serious composer. He received commissions from orchestras and festivals and conducted concerts of his music in Paris, London, Salzburg, Stockholm, New York City, and elsewhere. There was particular interest in his music in Sweden, where from 1981–1987 he led a number of concerts, made recordings, and even met the king and queen. Later, he enjoyed similar attention in England from 1992–1995, conducting concerts and making recordings with saxophonist John Harle and songwriter Elvis Costello.
Moondog’s recordings from his European years include Moondog in Europe (Kopf, 1977), H’Art Songs (Kopf, 1978), Moondog: Instrumental Music by Louis Hardin (Musical Heritage Society, 1978), an album of organ music A New Sound of An Old Instrument (Kopf, 1979), Facets (Managarm, 1981), Bracelli (Kakaphone, 1986), Elpmas (Kopf, 1992), Big Band (Trimba, 1995), and Sax Pax for a Sax with the London Saxophonic (Kopf/Atlantic, 1997). A two-CD sampler, Moondog: The German Years, 1977–1999 (Roof Music, 2004), surveys this period.
If you want to hear Moondog’s music, the best place to begin is the two-CD compilation Moondog: Rare Material (Roof Music, 2006), the first disc of which is the Big Band CD of 1995, which contains some of Moondog’s most appealing compositions. The second disc is a representative compilation of Moondog recordings from 1949 to 1989, beginning with his first 78s. The final track, “Moondog Monologue” from 1956’s More Moondog, is a good sampler of Moondog’s aphorisms and couplets. If you enjoy Big Band, the next recording to get is Sax Pax for a Sax (1987), which is in the same mould and has excellent sound quality.
Another must-have recording is the 1969 Columbia Masterworks Moondog, which contains some of his most appealing instrumental compositions from the 1950s and 1960s. (It is paired on a single CD with Moondog 2, which contains 26 rounds and canons, 25 of them for voice; taken in isolation, these are enormously appealing compositions, but listening to them all together has a deadening effect.)
Scotto’s biography also includes a 28 track sampler CD which includes previously unreleased recordings.
Scotto throws floods of light on Moondog’s music. Based simply on his recordings, most people would classify Moondog as a jazz composer, some of his compositions sounding vaguely “Latin” and others sounding very much like jaunty big band music. (I defy you to resist humming and tapping your toe along with Big Band or Sax Pax.)
Moondog’s music is highly rhythmic, sometimes with unusual time-signatures. Nicknamed “Mr. Rhythm,” he invented a number of new percussion instruments. As a street musician, Moondog’s compositions are short, so they can be easily committed to memory by a blind man and performed in toto in a fluid and distracting outdoor environment. The orchestration is also very simple, so his pieces can be realized by only a few players.
Here are some of his best-known compositions played by a contemporary group, Spirit of Moondog:
Here is another video of excerpts from well-known compositions:
Given this, I was quite surprised to learn that Moondog was an enormously prolific composer of classical music, an ambition that was first conceived at the age of 17. Moreover, the following year, he read Beowulf and listened to broadcasts of Wagner’s Ring cycle, which ignited the desire to create large-scale dramatic works based on Nordic myth and saga—an ambition that he began to realize in Germany with his two immense works, Thor and The Creation, which have only been performed in part.
Moondog’s love of counterpoint is evident in his recordings. He fell in love with counterpoint when he first heard Bach’s Two-Part Invention in C-minor. One of his major later works, Overtone Tree, is a symphony in one movement that is “one thousand bars long and it has so many contrapuntal parts that you need four conductors to make it happen” (p. 261).
Inspired by Mozart, Moondog began composing symphonies while a resident composer in Salzburg in 1983. By the time he returned to Salzburg the next year to premiere the first three, he had written 17 more. Eventually, he planned five books of 25 symphonies each, one in each key. He completed more than 200 before he died. And he composed far more than just symphonies. Most of this prodigious output has never been performed or recorded. In fact, much of it is still in Braille. It will be many decades before the world has a sense of Moondog’s musical accomplishments.
Although Moondog was championed by avant-garde elements, his music is deeply conservative. He said, “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool classicist, and I’m tonal.” “I would rather listen to rock’n’roll than Schoenberg because rock music is tonal and simple harmonically, as is mine” (p. 188). Moondog’s regular, spritely rhythms, simple harmonies, and counterpoint most closely resemble Renaissance and Baroque music.
Thus the “jazz” label is highly misleading. Moondog’s compositions have proved quite amenable to big band adaptations. He also wrote concert band and march music. But Moondog was far removed from avant-garde and improvisational jazz. Even his apparent “improvisations” were based on completely worked out scores.
Scotto’s biography reveals that Moondog was a reactionary in more than just music, although many of these points are developed in only the most cursory and tantalizing fashion.
For instance, after young Louis Hardin was blinded, he abandoned his Christian faith. It was the classic problem of evil. How could a God who is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful allow him to be blinded and left in agony? Once he put Christianity behind him, young Louis embraced “a new outlook on the world based on the so-called laws of nature and one’s relation to them” (p. 78). Scotto says nothing about the inspirations of this worldview, but there is definitely a Nietzschean flavor to such aphorisms as “One thing about life, be it said, it feeds upon itself over and over, and of itself is fed.”
Eventually, this nature-centered worldview came to include Nordic neo-paganism. Moondog came to believe that Western civilization was fundamentally sick. The cause of the sickness was Christianity. The only cure was for Europeans to reconnect with our primordial pagan roots. And for Moondog, those roots were Nordic. His Viking garb was not, therefore, merely a costume but an affirmation of faith and identity. He was, as Scotto says, a “Viking foot-soldier and bard, reasserting archaic values in the most cosmopolitan and urbanized of civlizations” (p. 160).
Moondog was not merely a literary or philosophical pagan. He earnestly worshiped the Norse gods.
Yes, I do believe in the Norse gods. . . . The way I go about worshiping the Norse gods is very much like a Moslem who would worship Allah: he can do it in a desert or anywhere . . . . If you want to think up when you think of the deity, you raise up your head, you just salute the invisible; it can happen any time; if you feel like communicating with something beyond humanity, you just do it. (p. 181)
Although Moondog most resembled Odin, it was Thor who was the focus of his devotion. In the late 1950s, Moondog bought some land and built a rough-hewn cabin in upstate New York. (Yes, he was a homeless man with major label contracts and a vacation cottage.) There he built a pyramidal stone altar to Thor. (Scotto’s biography reprints Moondog’s poems “Thor” in Appendix E and “The Song of Creation” in Appendix F.)
Scotto makes clear that Moondog became quite well-versed in Indo-European history, Nordic mythology and sagas, and the history of the Vikings. He was annoyed that Western educations favor Greek and Latin classics over the Germanic. When he moved to Europe, he felt he was returning to his spiritual homeland. He stopped in Iceland on the way, and later he made pilgrimages to the Externsteine, the Teutoburger Wald, and other historical sites.
Moondog also had strong racial feelings. He was particularly opposed to miscegenation between whites and blacks. Yes, even though he had cordial relationships with such black musicians as Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington.
It is thus ironic that Moondog’s second wife, Mary Whiting, was half-Japanese. (They were married for about eight years and had a daughter.) In fairness to Moondog, however, as a blind man, his racial feelings were based less on appearances than on qualities of personality. Spiritually speaking, Moondog felt that Mary was a soul-mate.
As a child, Louis Hardin had extensive exposure to American Indians in Wyoming. He felt a deep spiritual affinity for them and even incorporated their rhythms in his music. In 1949, Moondog left New York for a cross-country hobo odyssey. When he arrived in New Mexico, he sought to recapture his childhood fascination with the Indians by visiting the Navaho.
But no meeting of the minds was possible. Moondog was fleeing modernity toward an integral, traditional form of civilization. But the Navaho were fleeing that civilization to embrace modernity. Nor could he bridge the racial gap. His flirtation with the Noble Savage ended when a group of Navaho children led him out to an island in a busy highway and stranded him there. In the end, Moondog realized that his fascination with American Indian culture was merely his own blood calling him back to authentic European folkways.
Moondog was, moreover, quite frankly anti-Semitic, an outlook that dates back at least to his early 20s. Scotto claims that Moondog lost friends because of anti-Semitic verses, but he does not quote them. He tells us almost nothing of the origins or nature of these opinions. At one point, he absurdly suggests that it was a product of “middle-class” prejudice (this of a man who was free-spirited enough to embrace the life of a blind beggar and hobo). Elsewhere, Scotto suggests that Moondog’s views of Jews were merely a corollary of his assertion of his Nordic identity. This is more plausible, but no source material is quoted. Both explanations, of course, make no reference to typically Jewish behavior and personality traits.
Moondog, moreover, had extensive interactions with Jews in New York: Leonard Bernstein, Steve Reich, Alan Ginsberg, Benny Goodman, etc. Some of these interactions were clearly positive, but surely not all of them. For instance, Philip Glass invited Moondog to live with him for a year in the 1960s and wrote a Foreword to Scotto’s book in which he quite graciously credits Moondog as an influence.
On the other hand, in the 1950s, Jewish disc-jockey Alan Freed, who specialized in packaging black music for white teenagers, took the name Moondog. In 1956, Moondog sued him for copyright infringement. It was a long, bitter battle, particularly for a blind homeless man, but in the end, Goliath beat David, and Freed had to pay $6,000 in damages. (At one point, Arturo Toscanini took the stand as a character witness for Moondog.)
Scotto also mentions in passing that Moondog was very concerned with environmentalism and animal rights.
A pattern is emerging here.
Scotto’s book is an excellent first biography of Moondog. But the questions it raises point to the necessity of a second biography, an intellectual biography that explores the nature, inspirations, and development of Moondog’s worldview. Scotto’s biographical materials, which have been deposited in the Oral History of American Music Collection at Yale University, need to be gone over again with new eyes.
Another useful project would be an anthology of Moondog’s writings, which includes not only poetry but also pamphlets and essays on such topics as the Viking discovery of America and the evils of the Federal Reserve System. Again: a pattern.
Apparently Moondog—the big, gentle beast—was quite successful with women. He was married twice, fathered two daughters (the second out of wedlock), and had numerous relationships. Some women found his touching aggressive, but in his defense, that was the only way he could “see.” Still, his chosen lifestyle did not offer much to accommodate the female nesting instinct, so his relationships tended to be transient. In a couple of places, Scotto seems to hint that Moondog was bisexual. It does not seem particularly important, one way or the other, but why hint around about such an issue as if we were living in the 19th century?
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It is hard not to find Moondog’s life inspirational. He was a creative genius who triumphed over enormous obstacles. Some of those obstacles were surely self-imposed, as his critics and second-guessers point out. Moondog was not forced to live on the streets. Many people were willing to take care of him. He chose to live on the streets because he had a strong need for independence, and he was willing to pay the price. Yet even so, he demonstrated just how much one can do with how little—just how far the power of personality and genius can take you—how one can live a spiritually rich and creative life while blind and in poverty on the streets of New York.
It is ironic that young Louis Hardin concluded that the accident that blinded him was a refutation of Providence. On Scotto’s account, he had a terrible childhood. His parents were not exactly cruel. They were just self-absorbed flakes. Young Louis found it difficult to trust others and make friends. He lacked focus and self-confidence. He showed no sign of special intelligence or ability. He apparently did not receive much of an education.
Then he was plunged into darkness and agony. His life was shattered. The visible world was gone. He was forced inward, to gather his forces. He had to put his life back together and return to the world using his senses of hearing and touch. He emerged a remarkably transformed man. He discovered talents that lay hidden, an independence of mind and action that he did not know he possessed. The shy, retiring, unfocused boy had become a man with the self-confidence to travel blind across the United States.
One wonders if, were it not for the accident, Louis would have instead become like his younger sister, who simply drifted through life then just went missing, presumed dead. If so, then maybe there was something Providential about the accident, although perhaps the happy end was due not to God but to Hardin himself. Fate made Louis Hardin, Jr. into a blind man, and Hardin made the blind man into Moondog.