The Delightful Sounds and Incomparable Life of Moondog, The Viking of Sixth Avenue

1001_Moondog-1Out in the fringes you’ll find the most resourceful of humankind. It happens so rarely that I don’t remember the last time I stumbled upon an artist-in-obscurity like Moondog, who absolutely, completely blows me away. Serious audiophiles are free to scoff and say, “I’ve been on the Moondog tip for years, man.” Nevertheless, I’ve been freshly annihilated. And it feels good.

At the same time, I feel rightfully ignorant and suitably humbled for not having heard of Moondog until yesterday. All in all, the last 36 hours have been a Christmas Day of listening experience; there’s a growing sense of excitement with every “present” that gets opened. But the world only revolves around me if I choose to frame it that way.

While doing the homework for 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not, unscheduled detours into semi-tangential space are not uncommon. For instance, I may start digging for background information on the founding members of experimental prog-jazz fusion juggernaut, Soft Machine, only to wind up at the original theme song for Super Mario Bros. (composer Koji Kondo), which is my favorite jam of the entire Nintendo Music Library.

I love this Super Mario jam so much, I’ve counted for at least 100 views of this kid:

So now you have a vague idea of how these detours happen. Moondog’s arrival on my scene came at a most banal and unsuspecting moment; it so happened that I was forced to revisit Janis Joplin – Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967), which, concurrent with my estimation in the 1001 Albums series, is not an album you Must Hear Before You Die, but that’s not the point. As I skimmed through the record, I stopped at a song called “All Is Loneliness”, which, for the first minute or so is by far the most interesting and spooky thing Joplin & Co. ever did; in fact, you might mistake it for an Jefferson Airplane out-take, until Janis starts in on her blues woman routine, which I never bought. Anyway, looking at the songwriting credits (for the first time in my life), I saw that “All Is Loneliness” is credited to Moondog. Who the hell is Moondog?

moodog-over-manhattan1Moondog, born Louis Thomas Hardin (May 26, 1916 – September 8, 1999), was an American composer, musician, poet and inventor of several musical instruments. He was blind from the age of 16. In New York from the late 1940s until he left in 1972, he could often be found on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street wearing a cloak and Viking-style helmet, sometimes busking or selling music, but often just standing silent and still. He was widely recognized as “The Viking of 6th Avenue” by thousands of passersby and residents who had no idea that this seemingly homeless eccentric standing on “Moondog’s corner” was a respected and recorded composer and musician.[1]

Forgive me, but I got so excited by the delightful sounds of Moondog that most of the following biography sections were cribbed word-for-word from Wikipedia (with citations, of course), and the rest was cobbled together here and there. Meanwhile, it turns out that anyone who has seen The Big Lebowski (1998) is at least subconsciously familiar with Moondog. His “Theme” and “Stamping Ground” (from Moondog (1969)) were used in two scenes, most notably where the Dude solves the case while riding in the car with Walter (scroll down to Discography for YouTube clip).

Moondog – Moondog (1969)

Quite possibly the most enchanting record I have heard in at least a decade.

Moondog hadn’t released a record for twelve years since his 1957 album The Story of Moondog. Finally, in 1969, producer James William Guercio (Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears) invited him to record an album for Columbia Records.[2] The resulting album compiled various music that Hardin had been working on since the 1950s. This included two “minisyms” (Moondog’s term for short symphonic-styled works performed by small orchestras); two canons; a chaconne in memory of Charlie Parker; ballet music originally written for Martha Graham (“Witch of Endor”); and three symphonic (or “symphonique”) works, one of which was dedicated to Benny Goodman and featured elements of swing. A version of one composition, “Theme”, had previously been recorded for Epic Records in 1952.[3]

The album has been re-released twice as a 2-for-1 CD combining Moondog and Moondog 2: once by CBS in 1989, and once by Beat Goes On Records in 2001.

Moondog – Moondog 2 (1971)

Subtitled “Madrigals: Rounds and Canons,” there’s very little extant information about Moondog 2, which consists of 26 canons performed by a small group led by Hardin and included his daughter June Hardin, and a small band of period instrument musicians. Critical evaluation overwhelmingly favors the first Columbia LP over Moondog 2, yet the second LP has a certain charm that displays Moondog’s genius-level reckoning with limited resources. Some of the jams on Moondog 2 are similar to tracks by eccentric art pop groups like Matching Mole and Gentle Giant in both sound and lack of recognition by critics and public alike.

The following are excerpts from Moondog 2‘s original liner notes:

I began writing rounds in the late winter or early spring of 1951. I vaguely remember writing my first one, “All is Loneliness,” in a doorway on 51st Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway. For the next year or two I wrote about six dozen rounds, in fives and sevens…. In 1968, when I heard that Big Brother and The Holding Company had recorded “All is Loneliness,” I took to writing them again, this time concentrating on rounds in more conventional meters of 4/4, 2/4, 3/4. The rounds of the earlier fifties were all four-part, each having a compass of an octave. In the new rounds I did not limit myself to four-part nor to the compass of an octave.
moondog-2The four-part rounds of Book I, all of the early fifties, are 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22 and 23. The rest of Book I was written in June of 1968. Of these, the five-part rounds are 1, 10, 19, 21, 24 and 25. The six-part are 7 and 12. The seven-part is 3.
By July 1968 I had Book I printed up and was selling it on the street. One September evening a young man fell by the Warwick and started rapping. It was Jim Guercio. I laid a copy of Book I on him, never expecting anything would come of it. A year later he came by again with a man from Columbia Records. So three years after laying Book I on him, he recorded it and brought it out. Book I is the first of a series of nine finished books, each book having twenty-five rounds in it.
The round, the strictest of all canonic forms, has a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in European musical history. Rounds are eternal, they stop only when you stop repeating them. Perhaps the first rounds I ever heard in my childhood were “Three Blind Mice” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Moondog_bAll the instruments used on this record are acoustical, some old and some new. Of the old we used primitive pipe organ, virginal, harpsichord, recorder and viola da gamba. The modern instruments used were piano, celeste and guitar. The voices are my daughter June and myself, made to sound like a chorus by overdubbing. We both sing with straight tone, without vibrato, a sort of classical folk, almost ecclesiastical, or right out of Monteverdi.
The following are the musicians who participated in making this record: June Hardin: vocals, percussion; Louis Hardin: vocals, percussion; Kay Jaffee: virginal, recorders, piano, harpsichord, ancient organ; Michael Jaffee: recorders, guitar; Stephen Silverstein: schom; Judith Davidoff: viola da gamba. Another instrument used on the record is the troubadour harp, a harp without foot pedals, played by Gillian Stephens. She plays the chaconne entitled “Pastorale” that I wrote for her in the fall of 1970. In certain of the percussion tracks Jim sat in, doing a solo ad lib part against my drums for 22, also sitting in with June, me and others when percussion was recorded for 11, 14, and 18.
Though the pieces are all rounds, I call them “madrigals” which range far afield in subject matter, compared to the early madrigals which deal mainly with love.

There’s currently a Moondog documentary in the works (funded by Kickstarter campaign) and let me tell you, Janis Joplin and her motley crew of slackers absolutely murdered “All Is Loneliness.” It’s the criminal equivalent to Amy Winehouse doing “Strawberry Fields Forever.” On the other hand, I’m sure Moondog appreciated the royalty checks. Read on.

Moondog – “New Amsterdam” (from Sax Pax for a Sax, 1997)

Biography

Early life

Moon-Dog_The-Story-Of-MoondogBorn 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.

Hardin played drums for the high school band in Hurley, Missouri before losing his sight in a farm accident involving a dynamite cap at the age of 16.[4] 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.

Hardin 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.

Hardin moved to New York in 1943, 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.

New York

Moondog_510From the late 1940s until 1972, Moondog lived as a street musician and poet in New York City, busking 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.[5] 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,[6] 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.[7]

moondog2_drumIn 1947, Hardin had adopted the pen name “Moondog” in honor of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of.” 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.

Moondog_Alan-Freed-Moondog-Coronation-ball-Friday-March-21-1952.3In 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 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.[8][9]

Germany

Along with his passion for Nordic culture, Moondog had an idealized view of Germany (“The Holy Land with the Holy River”—the Rhine), where he settled in 1974.

Moondog – “Elf Dance” (Last Concert, 1999)

Eventually, a young German student[10] named Ilona Sommer (birth name: Goebel) helped Moondog set up the primary holding company for his artistic endeavors[11] 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 where he died in 1999.

Moondog in Stockholm 1986Moondog revisited America briefly in 1989, for a tribute in which Philip Glass asked him to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, at the New Music America Festival in Brooklyn, 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

Moondog+at+Herald+Square.+1953Moondog’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”.[12] Many of his works were highly contrapuntal, and he worked hard on perfecting his counterpoint, criticizing Bach for his many “mistakes”.[13]

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.

Moondog – “To a Sea Horse” (1956)

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.

Inventions

Moondog_trimba_01Moondog 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.

Influence

Moondog_louishardin_moondog-e1291746349452The 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.”‘ [14]

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 Seaman. ‘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 issed the original vinyl album in 1957, and Trunk Records reissued it on CD in 2010.

Moondog – “Symphonique #6 – Good For Goodie” (1969)

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.  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,[15] 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.

Discography

Singles

  • “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
Moondog – “Caribea”
  • “Stamping Ground Theme” (from the Holland Pop Festival) (1970), CBS.

Saxophonist, Moondog and Ilona in Stockholm 1986EPs

Albums

As Moondog

Moondog – “Enough About Human Rights”

With Julie Andrews and Martyn Green

  • 1957 Songs of Sense and Nonsense – Tell it Again, Angel/Capitol

Moondog_album278Compilations

  • 1991 More Moondog/The Story of Moondog, Original Jazz Classics
  • 2001 Moondog/Moondog 2, Beat Goes On
  • 2005 The German Years 1977–1999, ROOF Music
  • 2005 Un hommage à Moondog tribute album, trAce label
  • 2005 The Viking Of 6th Avenue (disc inside biographical book), Honest Jons (ISBN 0-976082-284)
  • 2006 Rare Material, ROOF Music

Various artist compilations

“Will you come off it, Walter? You’re not even fucking Jewish, man!”

Jeff Bridges was quite familiar with Moondog.

“I remember seeing him when I was a little kid, probably about 11 or 12. He’d be across from the Hilton Hotel, passing out little leaflets, like, ‘Come to my concert.’ Through the years, whenever I’d come to New York, he was there, rain or shine – so now I’m talking when I was between the ages of 12 and 25.
“One day I went into a record store, and I saw his picture on an album cover. I picked it up and looked at the liner notes, and who do you think wrote them? Leonard Bernstein! I bought the album and listened to it. It’s very avant-garde, moderne music – pretty fascinating. He’d built all of his own instruments and did his own thing. I dig so much of his stuff. T-Bone [Burnett] put some of his music in The Big Lebowski.”
[Sourced from Musicradar.com,“Jeff Bridges: the 10 records that changed my life” slideshow, Joe Bosso; August 13, 2014]

Moondog_playsDiscography continued

Performed by other musicians

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