If you were in New York City between 1947 and 1972 and found yourself walking on 6th Avenue between West 52nd & West 55th Streets there is a very good chance you saw a blind Viking carrying a stick as large as himself.
If you saw that blind Viking, more often than not he stood still not saying a word. Sometimes you might hear him read poetry or play music with instruments of his own invention most likely a percussion instrument called the trimba.
My Dad was one of these people who saw this blind Viking. When he was in his teens, Dad would occasionally assist my grandfather Eli who had a business installing sheet metal ceilings. Sometimes that business would take them into Manhattan. On one of these occasions, Dad was running an errand and was walking along 6th Avenue when he was startled by the sight of a six foot tall Viking stand in an alleyway between two buildings. The Viking stood there stoically as Dad was awed by his presence.
When Dad met up with my grandfather he told him what he just saw. While my grandfather was more familiar with the clubhouse turn than he was with Carnegie Hall, he knew exactly who Dad was talking about. “That was Moondog,” said my grandfather to my Dad. Fittingly, it was my Dad who introduced my siblings and I to the wonders of Moondog’s music.
You might be thinking that you’ve never heard of Moondog. But you’ve probably heard his music. If you’ve ever seen The Big Lebowski then you’ve heard Moondog’s “Stamping Ground”.
Today, Moondog would have turned 100-years old.
Born in Marysville, Kansas bordering Nebraska on May 26, 1916 as Louis T. Hardin. By the time he was 5 years old, Hardin was already inventing musical instruments as he made drums out of a cardboard box. Hardin’s passion for percussion would be further tapped when his father exposed him to Native American Sun Dance music beating a tom-tom in a drum circle while sitting on the lap of Yellow Calf, Chief of the Arapaho Indian Tribe in Wyoming. The Hardin family would move around off the beaten path – Clinton, North Carolina; Plymouth, Wisconsin; Evanston, Wyoming; Layne, Texas and eventually to Hurley, Missouri. It was in Hurley where Hardin’s life would profoundly change at the age of 16 when he was blinded after a dynamite cap exploded on the family farm. However, the accident would only enhance his musical abilities which he would refine in various schools for the blind in Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas and Tennessee before moving to New York City in 1943. It was in The Big Apple where Hardin developed his Moondog persona. He referred himself by this name in memory of a family dog who howled at the moon.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Moondog kept the company of the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini. Both Goodman and Toscanini would testify on his behalf in a famous case before the New York State Supreme Court in 1954 in which Moondog successfully sued DJ Alan Freed to prevent from using the term Moondog to describe both himself, his program (which he called The Moondog House)and the music he was playing on his radio station and at his concerts. The testimony of Goodman and Toscanini as to Hardin’s abilities as a serious composer would seal Freed’s fate when the presiding judge referred to Hardin as Mr. Moondog. Freed would have to settle upon another word to describe the type of music he was playing on his turntable – rock ‘n roll.
During the 1950’s, Moondog recorded several EPs & LPs for small labels including a children’s album featuring British actors Martyn Green and a very young Julie Andrews. These recordings combined Moondog’s percussion with sparse symphonic arrangements accompanied by ambient noise from both the natural and urban environment. After a period of prolific output, Moondog would make no new recordings until 1969 when Columbia Records released Moondog to his widest audience to date. Produced by James William Guercio, arguably the hottest producer in the music industry at the time as the man behind The Buckinghams, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Grammy winning eponymous album and Chicago, Moondog’s music would be introduced to a wide audience for the first time. A second album, Moondog 2, also produced by Guercio would be released in 1971. It is the first of these two Moondog albums which are among my earliest and most enduring musical memories becoming a fixture on the turntable in the Goldstein household and is revered by my family to this very day.
With his grey long hair, beard and robes, when I thought of God the first image which came to mind was Moondog. The same was true of my sister. Yet at the same time, Moondog’s music also evoked more earthly imagery. The percussion which begins “Minisym #1” reminds me of someone chopping carrots. But my favorite piece on this album is “Lament 1(Bird’s Lament)”. Written in honor of saxophone legend Charlie Parker, the two were to have collaborated when Parker died suddenly at the age of 34. Although less than two minutes in length it conveys a lifetime of musical passion cut abruptly short. For some reason though, when I heard the song it would make me think of Europe. As with “Stamping Ground”, you’ve probably heard “Bird’s Lament” without even knowing it. It was sampled extensively by British DJ Mr. Scruff in his 1999 song “Get a Move On” which has been used in commercials on both sides of the Atlantic.
When I told Holly Elson that I had been listening to Moondog since I was a little boy, she told me she had given birth to a son named Teddy back in March and was playing that very same album for him. It will do wonders for his curiosity – musical and otherwise.
Elson, a British documentary filmmaker, has been at work on a Moondog documentary The Viking of 6th Avenue. As of this writing, it is in post-production and Elson expects it to be ready for submissions to various film festivals this fall. Elson first learned of Moondog when she saw a BBC piece about him online in 2009 featuring two of his former collaborators Paul Jordan and Stefan Lakatos. She was struck both by Moondog’s music and his manner and knew she wanted to tell his tale. As Elson told me in an e-mail:
I thought wow! It was such compelling story. At the time, I couldn’t do anything about it – I was working on a lot of other things and didn’t have time to pursue it. My second thought was that someone surely must have made a film about him already. When I found that no one had that was the point at which I thought I’d better do it.
The music of Moondog has been described as minimalist in the vein of Phillip Glass (with whom Moondog lived for a time in New York City and Elson interviews in The Viking of 6th Avenue). However, Moondog described himself as a “classicist” and defined classicism in this manner. “Classicism is a constant, not subject to removal; it may be ignored or abhorred, but cannot be destroyed,” wrote Moondog, “Classicism is neither new nor old, but just is”. Moondog described his place within classicism in this manner on the liner notes of his first album for Columbia Records:
I am much happier walking humbly in the footsteps of the great masters, such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms etc, upholding the values they upheld. With spear in hand I defend these values against all comers. I am a tonalist at odds with all atonalists, polytonalists, quartertonalists, computerisers etc.
He added, “Classicism is a very large puddle. Indeed, I am content if need be to be a very small frog in it. Only time and posterity can decide just how big a frog I will be.” If nothing else, it gives his 1956 song “Frog Bog” an added significance.
For a quarter century, Moondog was as much a part of New York City’s landscape as Central Park, The Empire State Building and The Statue of Liberty. Then he just disappeared. All things considered, this should not have been a surprise. Despite his long standing association with New York City, as Moondog wrote in his 1969 liner notes, “I consider myself “a European in exile” for my heart and soul are in Europe.”
When Moondog disappeared from 6th Avenue in 1974, it was assumed that he had died. In reality, Moondog, like a growing frog, leaped over a very large puddle and found himself in West Germany where he would remain for the rest of his life save for a brief return to New York in November 1989 (the same month the Berlin Wall fell) where he performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Art and with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. His two Columbia Records were also re-released on a double CD.
By this time, Moondog’s Viking garb had been replaced by a simple robe. While in Germany, Moondog was taken in by the family of a young student named Ilona Goebbel (later known as Ilona Sommer). She would transcribe his music and manage his career which took him all over Europe. Perhaps his most notable work during his years in Europe was a collaboration he undertook with The London Saxophonic resulting in an album called Sax Pax for a Sax which was recorded in 1994 and eventually released in 1997. Moondog passed away on September 8, 1999 at the age of 83.
Although Moondog won’t be around to witness his 100th birthday, his music will carry on and for every passing century that frog will occupy a bigger space in the puddle that is classicism. Yet it could also be said that Moondog forged his own fjord within that puddle. In which case, Moondog is a classicist in a class of his own.