Louis "Moondog" Hardin (1916-1999)
Louis "Moondog" Hardin (1916-1999) © Getty  /  CBS Photo Archive

10 things that you (might) not know about Moondog, the Viking of 6th Avenue

How did a blind, homeless musician dressed as a viking become a central figure in the 1960s New York avant-garde, revered by musicians as varied as Charlie Parker, Steve Reich and Janis Joplin? Here are 10 facts to help better understand the man known as Moondog, composer of "Bird's Lament".

An eccentric musician and talented composer, Louis Hardin (a distant cousin of the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin) was deeply admired by conductors and musicians alike of all genres. He once gave conducting advice to the great George Szell, Janis Joplin covered his songs All is Loneliness, he performed with Charles Mingus at the Whitney Museum, and he proudly claimed he was the first to clap for Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall following his conductor debut...though fascinating, these are not even the most interesting elements that make Moondog the unique musical (and indeed social) figure he became over the course of the 20th century.

A Viking in New York

On 4 July 1932 in Kansas, a 16-year-old Louis Hardin unknowingly picked up a live cap of dynamite, which exploded in his face, blinding him forever. As a result, Hardin, the son of an Episcopalian minister, experienced a profound loss of faith, gravitating instead to other forms of spirituality and shamanism. When later living and performing in the streets of New York, with his long matted beard and tangled hair, the frequent associations with Jesus Christ bothered him so much that he decided to design his own Viking and "un-Christian" costume, in line with his passion for Nordic mythology and culture. Believed by many to be a mere gimmick to draw attention to himself, his attire was in reality an expression of his true identity.

Moondog on his street corner
Moondog on his street corner © Getty  /  CBS Photo Archive

However, Hardin's atypical sartorial style did not always bring him positive attention. For years a welcome guest at the New York Philharmonic rehearsals, invited by conductor Artur Rodziński himself, Louis Hardin was told in 1947 he could no longer attend the rehearsals due to his unique attire. Rather than conform, Hardin refused and stopped attending the rehearsals. '"I had a lot of offers from people who said that they would help me but that I had to dress conventionally [...] But I valued my freedom of dress more than I cared to advance my career as a composer. I just wanted to do my own thing."

Years later, in Stockholm in June 1981, during the inauguration of an exhibition of Viking artefacts at the Stockholm Natural History Museum, Hardin finally discovered that the Vikings never actually wore hats with horns, a truth that shattered a lifelong identity.

There's only room for one Moondog

What's in a name? In 1947, Louis Hardin began to wear with pride a name by which he would forever be known: Moondog, inspired by his childhood dog Lindy, "who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew". Known throughout the streets of New York and its artistic circles as the homeless Viking composer of New York, the name and the figure rapidly became part of New York legend. So much so that the "rock and roll king" Alan Freed decided to use the name Moondog as his own persona after hearing Moondog's Moondog Symphony, calling his show "The Moondog House" and crowning himself "King of the Moondoggers".

A Viking warrior to the core, Moondog decided to fight the legendary radio host in court. Perhaps Moondog would have lost his case were it not for the help of renowned musical figures such as Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini, and Benny Goodman, who all expressed their admiration and respect for Moondog, and confirmed his legitimacy to the name "Moondog". "I don't know if that decided the case or not but I won the case against Freed and he stopped using the name."

Alan Freed, the "King of the Moondoggers"
Alan Freed, the "King of the Moondoggers" © Getty  /  Hulton Archive

But wait, there's more...

Only discussing Moondog the eccentric street musician would be ignoring Louis Hardin the prolific (and largely self-taught) composer of hundreds of works, including 81 symphonies, works for orchestra, chamber and brass ensembles (notably saxophone), works for piano and organ, and around 50 songs...to name but a few! Displaying a blend of melodic creativity, rhythmic mastery, and an eclectic blend of musical genres, the works of Louis "Moondog" Hardin are much more than the quaint sketches of an unconventional homeless street musician. 

His childhood desire to not only become a composer, but the greatest composer, burned strong within Hardin his entire life, pushing him to compose increasingly ambitious works, entirely in Braille, often at a dizzying rate. As a resident composer in Vienna in 1983, Moondog wished to follow in the footstops of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who composed his last three symphonies in the Austrian capital, by composing his first three symphonies. Not only did he do so in only six weeks, but by the following year, Moondog had composed a total of 20 symphonies!

And yet, though many of his works were performed and even published during his lifetime, there still remain to this day many works by Moondog that have never been heard , let alone recorded, including works for 13 celestas, another for 76 trombones, Tree Tone, a work requiring eight conductors, and notably Cosmos, a nine-hour work calling for thousand musicians and singers! Furthermore, many of Hardin's sketches are still in Braille, meaning that it could be years before musical audiences are fully aware of the extent of Moondog’s musical accomplishments.

Sounds like America!

When we think of American composers, the names George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein come to mind...but not Moondog. Yet the music of Louis Hardin could not possibly contain more quintessentially American sounds and influences: military brass bands, ragtime and jazz, native Indian percussion music, and even recordings of actual New York street sounds, ! Not only a street musician, Moondog spent much of his adult life on the street, selling his poems, performing and even recording his works, capturing the very essence of New York street life as a part of his music.

As a young child, Louis Hardin was raised listening to two things: ragtime, and military brass bands. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a strong swing influence can be felt throughout his works, and a preference for brass instruments, the saxophone in particular. Additionally, upon visiting the Indian Arapahoe tribe in the early 1920s, he met the tribe's chief, Yellow Calf, with whom he discovered the traditional sun dances on the tom-tom. This experience would mark the beginning of Moondog's style, nicknamed "snaketime" (because it sounded "snaky"), percussion and off-beat rhythms becoming an integral part of his musical DNA. So obsessed by syncopation and off-beat rhythms was Moondog that he often declared that "the human race is going to die in 4/4 time"...another reason to play off-beat!

Rebelling against the rebels

"Harmonically, my music is the same as Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and those people. No difference really." Though perhaps no different than previous classical composers, his music was nonetheless noticeable amidst a rising fascination with twelve-tone music and atonality: by rejecting the 20th century's own rejection of tonality, Moondog once again stood out from his contemporaries. “I’m strictly tonal so I feel kind of lonely". Whilst everyone looked ahead for new and innovative sounds, Moondog looked to the past, resurrecting harmonies and musical structures that invariably sounded unique in an ever-changing world.

"You'll never be a composer unless you master counterpoint". Upon reading these words in a book as a teenager, Moondog naturally sought to learn more about contrapuntal writing. He quickly discovered (and fell in love with) the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. A great admirer of the German composer, he nonetheless unashamedly pointed out Bach's supposed mistakes: "I love Bach but he never analysed his pieces- I'm sure he realised that there were a lot of mistakes in there. I'm sure he would have corrected them if he had the time but he had kids and wives to take care of.”

What's that sound?

We all know the violin, the trumpet, the piano, the flute...but what about the oo, a small triangular 25-stringed harp? The hüs, a triangular stringed instrument played with a bow? The utsu, a simple pentatonic keyboard? The trimba, a triangular percussion instrument? The uni, a seven-stringed zither? If you ever wish to perform a variety of Moondog's works, you had better start practising! Not only a wildly creative composer, Moondog imagined new instruments specifically for his music, each with its own distinctive timbre and role.

But what kind of music can one perform with these instruments? “Moondog music”, as Moondog called it...what else?

Influenced by Moondog? Get in line...

"Everybody who was anybody met Moondog”, says Robert Scotto, one of Moondog's earliest biographers. It is certainly easier to list those conductors, musicians, and composers who weren't influenced by Louis "Moondog" Hardin! Having spent years on the streets of New York, performing in front of concert halls and record label offices, Moondog invariably rubbed elbows with the best in the business. But people also went out of their way to find the legendary Moondog, including some of the great jazzmen of the day such as Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Charlie "Bird" Parker. Bird even expressed a burning desire to record an album with Moondog, but passed away shortly after, his wish forever unfulfilled. As a tribute to the great saxophonist, Moondog composed his famous Bird's Lament.

On a more classical note, a then-young Philip Glass, student at the Juilliard School of Music, discovered Moondog and his music outside of the New York jazz bar Birdland, where the musician would play along to the music inside. Fascinated by the uniquely talented musician, he would later invite Moondog to live with him for a year, and introduce him to Steve Reich (both Glass and Reich have claimed that they learned more from Moondog than from their studies at Juilliard, going so far as to call Moondog the founder of minimalism and a patriarch).

But Moondog's influence did not stop at jazz and contemporary classical music. An iconic member of the New York beat generation, Moondog met and befriended the likes of Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, and notably Janis Joplin, and even the literaries William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg. His music even influenced Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. From jazz to contemporary music and everything in between, it is easy to understand why Moondog came to be known as "The Bridge", uniting a multitude of different genres and influencing all areas of contemporary artistic creation.

9 is the magic number 

As if Moondog was not eccentric enough, he also exhibited a strong fascination for the number 9, believing the number to contain within it a universal code born through sound, derived from a superhuman intelligence reserved only for those capable of understanding it: 

"I've found that in the first nine overtones [a principal of musical soundwaves] there's a code which can only have been conceived by a god - I call it a Megamind. That code not only proves that god exists [...] but I have found that there are secret laws in there referring to cosmic construction [...] These things are all there in the first nine overtones."

This fascination permeated many of his poems, written in iambic nonameter, and his compositions, as described by the composer himself: for example the Overtone Tree, a symphonic project for four conductors based upon the first nine overtones, a one-thousand-part canon nine hours in length, and Sax Pax for a Sax, composed for nine saxophones.

Somewhat ironically, the man obsessed by the number 9 died on 8 September 1999...

Dead? Not yet!

In 1974, Moondog finally realised his lifelong desire to visit the homeland of his musical idols - Germany. Invited by the Hessischer Rundfunks Orchestra to attend the first European concert of his work, organised with the help of his friend and organist Paul Jordan, the Viking of 6th Avenue, a self-described "European in exile", left America to discover the European continent. Following a successful series of concerts, Moondog declared he would not return to his homeland, making his new home the streets of Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Recklinghausen.

It was here that Moondog met an archeology student by the name of Ilona Goebel. Having recently discovered an album of Moondog's music in her local record shop, she convinced the fascinating composer to move in with her and her family in the nearby village of Oer-Erkenschwick, a "composer's paradise" according to Moondog. Goebel quickly put an end to her archeology studies to become his daily assistant, publisher, record producer, and eventually his companion. Together they founded the publishing company Managarm (a dog in Nordic mythology that chases the moon), to promote his music in Europe.

However, having abandoned all proof of life back in America, people quickly decided that the Viking composer had undoubtedly passed away, and his name graudally became a legend. Only in 1989 did Moondog finally return to New York, invited to perform at the New Music America festival as a triumphant and recognised composer.

The Moondog is still howling...

Though Moondog died in Germany in 1999, his music has lived on, rapidly gaining popularity as the years go by. Performed well after his death by countless classical and non-classical alike, including Jimmy McGriff, Marc Bolan, Moonshake, Stereolab, and more recently the Labèque sisters to name but a few, the name Louis "Moondog" Hardin is today far from forgotten. 

Beyond covers of his music, certain artists have drawn from the music of Moondog in more modern ways, using his music as the building blocks for new musical compositions. Known as sampling, the process involves cutting a musical work into pieces, extracting desired passages and using them as motifs for a new work. 

Though some may watch in horror as DJs use Moondog's music in ways of which they disapprove, it is important to note that Moondog himself was a fan of sampler technology, having first discovered it in Germany during the 1980s and praising the technology's limitless possibilities (his album "Elpmas", released in 1991, is a simple anagram of the word sample). One notable example is by Mr Scruff, an English producer and DJ, using a sample of Moondog's Bird's Lament in 1999 for his track Get a Move on, which garnered great success and brought a renewed (and well-deserved) attention to the music of Louis "Moondog" Hardin.

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