Louis Thomas Hardin (May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999), also known as Moondog, was an American musician, composer, theoretician, poet and inventor of several musical instruments. He was blind from the age of 16.
Hardin lived in New York from the late 1940s until 1972, and during this time he could often be found on 6th Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Streets, wearing a cloak and a horned helmet sometimes busking or selling music, but often just standing silently on the sidewalk. He was widely recognized as “the Viking of 6th Avenue” by thousands of passersby and residents who weren’t aware of his musical career.
Born to an Episcopalian family in Marysville, Kansas, Hardin started playing a set of drums that he made from a cardboard box at the age of five. His family relocated to Wyoming and his father opened a trading post at Fort Bridger. He attended school in a couple of small towns. At one point, his father took him to an Arapaho Sun Dance where he sat on the lap of Chief Yellow Calf and played a tom-tom made from buffalo skin.
Hardin played drums for the high school band in Hurley, Missouri before losing his sight at the age of 16 in a farm accident on July 4, 1932, involving a dynamite cap. After learning the principles of music in several schools for blind young men across middle America, he taught himself the skills of ear training and composition. He studied with Burnet Tuthill and at the Iowa School for the Blind.
He then moved to Batesville, Arkansas where he lived until 1942, when he got a scholarship to study in Memphis, Tennessee. Although the majority of his musical training was self-taught by ear, he learned some music theory from books in braille there.
In 1943 Hardin moved to New York, where he met noted classical music luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscanini, as well as legendary jazz performer-composers such as Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman, whose upbeat tempos and often humorous compositions would influence Hardin’s later work. One of his early street posts was near the famed 52nd Street nightclub strip, and he was well-known to many jazz musicians and fans. By 1947 Hardin had adopted the name “Moondog” in honor of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of”.
From the late 1940s until 1972, Moondog lived as a street musician and poet in New York City, playing in midtown Manhattan, eventually settling on the corner of 53rd or 54th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. He was not homeless, however, or at least not often: he maintained an apartment in upper Manhattan and had a country retreat in Candor, NY, to which he moved in 1972. He partially supported himself by selling copies of his poetry and his musical philosophy. In addition to his music and poetry, he was also known for the distinctive fanciful “Viking” cloak that he wore. Already bearded and long-haired, he added a Viking-style horned helmet to avoid the occasional comparisons of his appearance with that of Christ or a monk, as he had rejected Christianity in his late teens. He developed a lifelong interest in Nordic mythology, and maintained an altar to Thor in his country home in Candor.
In 1949 he traveled to a Blackfoot Sun Dance in Idaho where he performed on percussion and flute, returning to the Native American music he first came in contact with as a child. It was this Native music, along with contemporary jazz and classical, mixed with the ambient sounds from his environment (city traffic, ocean waves, babies crying, etc.) that created the foundation of Moondog’s music.
In 1954, he won a case in the New York State Supreme Court against disc jockey Alan Freed, who had branded his radio show, “The Moondog Rock and Roll Matinee”, around the name “Moondog”, using “Moondog’s Symphony” (the first record that Moondog ever cut) as his “calling card”. Moondog believed he would not have won the case had it not been for the help of musicians such as Benny Goodman and Arturo Toscanini, who testified that he was a serious composer. Freed had to apologize and stop using the nickname “Moondog” on air, on the basis that Hardin was known by the name long before Freed began using it.
Moondog tomb at the Central Cemetery in Münster, designed by Ernst Fuchs after the death mask
Along with his passion for Nordic culture, Moondog had an idealised view of Germany (“The Holy Land with the Holy River”—the Rhine), where he settled in 1974.
Eventually, a young German student named Ilona Sommer helped Moondog set up the primary holding company for his artistic endeavors and hosted him, first in Oer-Erkenschwick, and later on in Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Moondog lived with the family of Ilona Sommer and they spent time together in Münster. During that period Moondog created hundreds of compositions which were transferred from Braille to sheet music by Ilona Sommer. Moondog spent the remainder of his life in Germany. On 8 September 1999 he died in Münster from heart failure. He is buried at the Central Cemetery Münster. His tomb was designed by the artist Ernst Fuchs after the death mask.
Moondog revisited the United States briefly in 1989, for a tribute at the New Music America Festival in Brooklyn, in which festival director Yale Evelev asked him to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, stimulating a renewed interest in his music.
He recorded many albums, and toured both in the U.S. and in Europe—France, Germany and Sweden.
Moondog’s music took inspiration from street sounds, such as the subway or a foghorn. It was characterized by what he called “snaketime” and described as “a slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary […] I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time”. Many of his works were highly contrapuntal, and he worked hard on perfecting his counterpoint.
Moondog’s work was early championed by Artur Rodziński, the conductor of New York Philharmonic in the 1940s. He released a number of 78″s, 45″s and EPs of his music in the 1950s, as well as several LPs on a number of notable jazz labels, including an unusual record of stories and songs for children with Julie Andrews and Martyn Green, in 1957, called Songs of Sense and Nonsense – Tell it Again. For ten years no new recordings were heard from Moondog until producer James William Guercio took him into the studio to record an album for Columbia Records in 1969.
A second album produced with Guercio featured one of Moondog’s daughters as a vocalist and contained song compositions in canons and rounds. The album did not make as large an impression in popular music as the first had. The two CBS albums were re-released as a single CD in 1989.
Most of Moondog’s works are published by Managarm Musikverlag in Germany. By his last will the heritage of Moondog was administered and owned by Ilona Sommer, who died in September 2011. In her will she appointed the German lawyer Alexander Duve (Berlin, Germany) as the executor of her estate including the copyrights in Moondog’s works, so he now administers Moondog’s heritage.
The trimba, Moondog percussion instrument
Moondog also invented several musical instruments, including a small triangular-shaped harp known as the “oo”, another which he named the “ooo-ya-tsu”, and a triangular stringed instrument played with a bow that he called the “hüs” (after the Norwegian, “hus”, meaning “house”). Perhaps his best known creation is the “trimba”, a triangular percussion instrument that the composer invented in the late 40s. The original Trimba is still played today by Moondog’s friend Stefan Lakatos, a Swedish percussionist, to whom Moondog also explained the methods for building such an instrument.
The music of Moondog of the 1940s and 50s is said to have been a strong influence on many early minimalist composers. Philip Glass has written that he and Steve Reich took Moondog’s work “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard”.
In July 1956 the British jazz composer and musician Kenny Graham recorded the album “Moondog and Suncat Suites” with a thirteen-piece band featuring such notable performers as Stan Tracey and Phil Seamen. “Moondog” featured Graham’s arrangements of ten Moondog compositions, whereas “Suncat Suite” consisted of a sequence of six of Graham’s own compositions inspired by Moondog. HMV issued the original vinyl album in 1957, and Trunk Records reissued it on CD in 2010.
Moondog inspired other musicians with several songs dedicated to him. These include “Moondog” on Pentangle’s 1968 album Sweet Child and “Spear for Moondog” (parts I and II) by jazz organist Jimmy McGriff on his 1968 Electric Funk album. Glam rock icon Marc Bolan and T. Rex made reference to him in the song “Rabbit Fighter” with the line “Moondog’s just a prophet to the end…”. The English pop group Prefab Sprout included the song “Moondog” on their album Jordan: The Comeback released in 1990. Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin covered his song “All Is Loneliness” on their 1967 self-titled album. The song was also covered by Antony and the Johnsons during their 2005 tour. Mr. Scruff’s single “Get a Move On” from his album Keep It Unreal is structured around samples from “Bird’s Lament”. New York band The Insect Trust play a cover of Moondog’s song “Be a Hobo” on their album Hoboken Saturday Night. The track “Stamping Ground”, with its odd preamble of Moondog reciting one of his epigrams, was featured on the sampler double album Fill Your Head with Rock (CBS, 1970). Canadian composer and producer Daniel Lanois included a track called “Moondog” on his album/video-documentary Here Is What Is.
Between 1970 and 1980 a blind bearded mystic called “Moondog” appeared as the title character in a four issue series of Underground comix written and illustrated by George Metzger.[
A documentary about his life, “The Viking of 6th Avenue”, is in production for release in 2017
• “Snaketime Rhythms (5 Beat) / Snaketime Rhythms (7 Beat)” (1949), SMC
• “Moondog’s Symphony” (1949–1950), SMC
• “Organ Rounds” (1949–1950), SMC
• “Oboe Rounds” (1949–1950), SMC
• “Surf Session” (c. 1953), SMC
• “Caribea Sextet”/”Oo Debut” (1956), Moondog Records
• “Stamping Ground Theme” (from the Kralingen Music Festival) (1970), CBS
• 1953 Improvisations at a Jazz Concert, Brunswick
• 1953 Moondog on the Streets of New York, Decca/Mars
• 1953 Pastoral Suite / Surf Session, SMC
• 1955 Moondog & His Honking Geese Playing Moondog’s Music, Moondog Records
• 1953 Moondog and His Friends, Epic
• 1956 Moondog, Prestige
• 1956 More Moondog, Prestige
• 1957 The Story of Moondog, Prestige
• 1969 Moondog (not the same as the 1956 LP), Columbia
• 1971 Moondog 2, Columbia (with insert: Round the World of Sound: Moondog Madrigals with scores)
• 1977 Moondog in Europe, Kopf
• 1978 H’art Songs, Kopf
• 1978 Moondog: Instrumental Music by Louis Hardin, Musical Heritage Society
• 1979 A New Sound of an Old Instrument, Kopf
• 1981 Facets, Managarm
• 1986 Bracelli, Kakaphone
• 1992 Elpmas, Kopf
• 1994 Sax Pax for a Sax with the London Saxophonic, Kopf/Atlantic
• 1995 Big Band, Trimba
• 2005 Bracelli und Moondog, Laska Records
With Julie Andrews and Martyn Green
• 1957 Songs of Sense and Nonsense – Tell it Again, Angel/Capitol
• 1991 More Moondog/The Story of Moondog, Original Jazz Classics
• 2001 Moondog/Moondog 2, Beat Goes On
• 2004 The Viking Of Sixth Avenue, Honest Jon’s
• 2005 The German Years 1977–1999, ROOF Music
• 2005 Un hommage à Moondog tribute album, trAce label
• 2006 Rare Material, ROOF Music
• 2007 The Viking Of 6th Avenue (disc inside biographical book), Process (ISBN 978-0-9760822-8-6)
• 2017 The Viking of Sixth aVE., Manimal
• Moondog on You Tube
• https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AdPl5xIAvE The German Years 1977-1999 – Moondog (full album) [disc one] 1 hour 5 minutes
• https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9YXEEdZAtw Birds Lament 26.37
• https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oQvtOcJKj4 Comic Meditation