The Moondog Viking Virtuoso

When I was a child, he often scared me: towering, like an oak tree, with fixed stare, long spear and incongruous apparel of the Viking breed. The crowds before and around me would do their respective double-takes and continue on their several ways, while certain persons would break away from the swarm and chat with this stranger amongst us. They seemed intrigued by what he had to tell…little did I know of the diverse shapes that talent and greatness assume.

He was born Louis Thomas Hardin in Marysville, Kansas on May 26, 1916. The son of an Episcopal minister, the family often moved and Hardin was raised in various towns throughout the Plains States. An extremely prolific boy, he possessed a probing intellect, a penchant to discover new people, places and things, further heightened by his family’s somewhat itinerant lifestyle. Hardin’s curiosity proved a curse (arguably a blessing) when, at 16, a blasting cap he was examining exploded in his face and blinded him for life.

His sight may have been lost, but Hardin’s mind continued to soar. He developed an unquenchable love for music and taught himself its principles, mastering a rudimentary form of ear training and composition. He absorbed a more sophisticated style of music training at the Iowa School for the Blind and while studying with Burnet Tuthill, famed conductor and founder of the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM).

Hardin moved to New York City in 1943 when he was 27, renaming himself “Moondog” (after a bulldog he loved as a child) and quickly established his eccentric reputation. Along with music, he had developed a passion for literature, history, philosophy…and Norse mythology, a passion that almost equaled his love for music. From various fabrics, he designed his own Viking raiment that was guaranteed to draw attention (even in NYC) and usually posted himself at 54th Street and Sixth Avenue.

“Although often mistaken for homeless, he always had a room somewhere (he lived for a year in the ’60s with [Philip Glass] and [his wife] theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, and was married for a period and raised a daughter. His many hours on the street were his way of connecting with the sounds, voices and rhythms of the city.” (NYT)

To support himself, he sold, among other things, copies of his poetry, recordings, political treatises and sheet music to passersby, and, as the years passed, eventually attracting the attention of everyone from beatniks and hippies to the like of Walter Winchell and Leonard Bernstein.

“Working in Braille, often composing under his cloak on the sidewalk, he wrote in an impressively wide range of styles: percussion-driven exotica (he made his own triangular drum-and-cymbal instrument, the trimba), avant-garde jazz, folkish madrigals, Bach-like neo-Baroque rounds and canons for chamber orchestra, symphonies for full orchestra, and a layered minimalism that influenced his young collaborators Steve Reich and Philip Glass.”

In 1974, Moondog moved to Germany where he lived until his death in 1999 at 83. His legacy continues in NYC as one of music’s most influential figures; but, despite his acceptance by the jazz world, the classical elite have never accepted Moondog’s contributions with much seriousness, his works displaying merely a “melodic and tuneful [unoriginality] when atonality and dissonance often ruled.”

“Everybody who was anybody met Moondog,” said Robert Scotto, author of “Moondog,” a biography. “And everybody had his own Moondog story.” Even this frustrated musician met Moondog on several occasions, first as a child then as a man, purchasing some of his sheet music, chatting with him for awhile…I’d like to think that a glimmer of his talent rubbed off on me.

Before you leave, please check out Moondog’s  “Bird’s Lament,” one of my favorites:

Source: Sidewalk Hero on the Horns of a Revival  NY Times