Short History of Moondog (1916-1999):
qualified to review such an artist…let me get that out of the way right off the bat.
Moondog has an understanding of music I can only read about and a style that requires metaphors and adjectives held
from me by the wonderment of his talent. He is beyond categorization, and most
of his records are indeed an acquired taste, but once they finally hit the buds, you’ll do whatever it takes to get
Louis T. Hardin
was born May 26, 1916 in Maryville, Kansas. The son of an Episcopalian minister father and a school teaching mother, Louis and his family frequently moved around the country,
following his father’s missionary work. On one such trip, when Louis was
six years old, the family made it to an Arapaho Reservation on the plains of Wyoming to spread Christianity to the Natives. By chance, the Hardins visited at the onset on the Arapaho’s annual Sun Dance
(which was outlawed by the American government in 1906, but still practiced in secret).
This ceremony lasts up to eight days (besides dancing, it includes sacrifice and self inflicted penance), and a non-Native
visitor was rare indeed. Still, Chief Yellow Calf was so taken with the boy’s
rhythmic sense that he gave Louis sticks, placed him on his lap, and let him keep the beat on a buffalo skin tom-tom. Hardin has claimed that this event was one of the most shaping in his entire
life, and the rhythms he heard provided more than a little inspiration for his later work.
Unfortunately, Hardin, a
relative to the infamous Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin (himself the son of a preacher), had one more life defining moment
before he reached adulthood. On July 4, 1932, the sixteen-year-old drummer for
the Hurly High School Band, perhaps in celebration of Independence Day, was holding a stick of dynamite. The stick somehow exploded, and although Louis survived, he was blinded for the rest of his life. He has said that this disability helped his musical ear, and after learning brail
and reading everything he could get his hands on, he eventually gained acceptance into the Iowa School for the Blind. There he studied the violin, viola, piano, organ, and percussion. After graduating, and the divorce of his parents, he lived with his father in Arkansas until studying at
the Memphis Conservatory of Music in 1942, and marrying a socially prominent, older woman.
A year and a
half later, Hardin, with barley any connections, left his wife and took a train to New York City to become a composer. He started spending a great deal of time attending rehearsals at the New York Philharmonic
at Carnegie Hall and eventually met and became friendly with legends Artur Rodzinski, Leonard Bernstein, and Arturo Toscanini,
and through them met Jazz greats Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. Even at that
time, his style and dress were remarkably unusual. Many of the notable people
Hardin met said he looked liked a monk or even Christ, and most felt uncomfortable in his presence. Nevertheless, he attended these rehearsals, basically daily, for four years chatting with players and learning
which instruments were capable of what. Sadly, when Rodzinski left the Philharmonic,
Hardin was no longer allowed to sit in on rehearsals mainly because of the way he dressed.
It was around
this time that Hardin began performing on the streets and started to use the moniker Moondog (settling in on 54th
Street and Avenue, known eventually as “Moondog Corner”). To go along
with his new name, he began dressing in his now famous Viking garb. He claimed
he dressed that way as a form of rebellion against organized fashion, and both the name and his style of dress got him a ton
of attention. Moondog, amazingly, slept on the streets, in various cheap hotels,
convenient store floors, or archways, inventing instruments and writing his songs and poetry for the next thirty years!
He never had a real residence in New York City the entire time he performed there!
In 1950 a music
store owner named Gabriel Oller was so impressed with Moondog’s percussion pieces that he recorded a series of 78s,
and Moondog was able to use the money he made off the streets (estimated by him at up to $5.00 a day) to make a few more recordings
throughout the years. One, called “Moondog Symphony,” was
used by famous DJ Alan Freed as the background for his radio show in Cleveland. Freed
began calling himself Moondog in 1951, and Louis Hardin eventually won a court case against Freed for using Hardin’s
nickname and music without permission. From then on there would be only one Moondog.
In 1952, Moondog
was married for the second time to a part Japanese woman named Suzuko Whiteing. The couple lived in Suzuko’s parents house for a time, but strangely, Moondog
would not give up sleeping on the streets. Even when they had their daughter,
June, Moondog still found it difficult to leave his life of composing, talking, writing, and living on the streets. By keeping a few friends in high places and by being constantly cited in newspaper articles, Moondog was
somehow able to secure a record pressing, and recorded his first album for the Prestige Label in 1956, calling the LP simply,
The royalties for his debut were few and far between, but Moondog did manage
to make around $800, which he used to purchase 40 acres of land in upstate New York between Ithaca and Binghamton (The lot
of land was actually located just five miles from the tiny village of Owego, New York—the hometown of yours truly). Moondog would save money from working in the streets of New York City to afford the
bus ticket up to Owego and spend his time living back and forth between these two locations.
At first he and a neighbor put up a stone and sod shack, but by 1961 Moondog had built a sixteen by sixteen foot cabin,
heated by a large woodstove (with no electricity). Moondog continued to spend
parts or all of the year at his cabin until permanently moving to Germany in 1974, but this little “retreat” would
be the only home Moondog had in America after leaving his father’s house in 1943.
Usually though, you could find Moondog working and living on the streets in
New York City. His small bit of success from his debut found Prestige recording
two more Moondog albums to be released over the next year entitled, “More Moondog” and “The
Story of Moondog.” Neither of these works sold as well as his
debut and soon Moondog was left to fend for himself again. His marriage collapsed
in 1960, but he continued on, sleeping wherever he could find a warm place and using the solitude of his upstate cabin to
write his poems and music. The New York papers continued to do write-ups on him,
paying particular attention to his Viking clothing and sharp wit, and he became kind of a city landmark, with cops looking
out for him and young people paying homage (but rarely much money). He appealed
greatly to the early 60s beat generation and appeared on stage with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce, and Tiny Tim,
and even was seen in a film alongside William Boroughs. Bob Dylan wrote a few
lines about him in Hootenanny Magazine in December of 1963, and in 1967, Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring
Janis Joplin) actually covered a Moondog song, “All Is Loneliness,” on their debut album. Moondog even appeared on both the “Today” and “The Tonight Show” in the 1960s,
but still could not get anyone to record his music.
Ever clever, he never gave up, and stationed himself outside Columbia Recording
Studios for the next decade, slowly beginning to win over the executives and talent scouts that would pass by this ridiculous
looking Viking to get to work each day. By 1969, he had showed off enough of
his street talent and passed out enough copies of his poetry and classical scores that Columbia brought in this city treasure
to record two albums. “Moondog” was released
in 1969, and “Moondog 2” in 1971. These two records
brought Moondog more money than he had ever seen (although still not doing anything close to making him rich). Based on these recordings he was able to live year round in his cabin upstate and tour Europe
in 1974, fulfilling a lifetime goal of making it to the Old World.
After a concert in Recklinghausen,
Germany, Moondog decided to stay for a while, and he began performing on the streets.
There he was spotted by Ilona Goebel (Sommer), wearing his Viking costume and selling his
poetry. Goebel eventually invited Moondog to live with her family in the town
of Oer-Erkenschwick and became his manager, assistant, and publisher of both his scores and writings through her company Managarm. For the next twenty-five years Moondog continued to produce eclectic albums of classical,
jazz, and tribal music, even making a piano pop album in 1978, titled “H’art Songs,” while
living in Germany and recording for Kopf Records.
Most New Yorkers assumed Moondog had died (his death
was even mentioned by Paul Simon on his “Paul Simon Special” television show in 1977), but they were treated to
Moondog’s return in 1989 when he was invited home to conduct a series of concerts given by the Brooklyn Philharmonic
Chamber Orchestra. He had given up his Viking clothing, but was still as witty
and charming as ever in the various interviews published around that time. Moondog
recorded his last album in 1997, “Sax Pax for a Sax,” before passing away in Munich, Germany
in 1999 at the age of 83.
PhD and Moondog biographer,
Robert Scotto, has stated, “Without question, Moondog was the most famous street person of his time and a hero to a
generation of hippies and flower children." While I’m not sure about all
of that, he clearly was a unique figure in Twentieth Century music, a man of highly poetic verse, and, on a more personal
note, a sometime resident of my hometown. My parents distinctly remember seeing
Moondog in his full Viking getup throughout their first few years of living in Owego and I can’t help but feel a small
sense of pride and humility when listening to any man that thought Owego, New York was a sweet vacation spot!
Back To Moondog's Page