Essay

Moondoggers

In the late 60s and early 70s, CBS was a major record label which issued a series of sampler albums at a cheap price. First of all their rock machine turned us on  and later filled our heads with rock. The majority of the tracks were American, music which those of us in the UK might otherwise have not been turned on to. many of their names live on with constant re-releases: The Byrds, Chicago, Santana, Spirit, Janis Joplin, Taj Mahal, Leonard Cohen …. There were several British artists as well, although the most notable CBS act for me, Soft Machine, was not included.

One of the tracks on the latter album was different, very different. It started with approaching footsteps and the distant sound of traffic, and then a rich voice intoned this short poem.

Machines were mice,
And men were lions,
Once upon a time.
But now that it’s the opposite,
It’s twice upon a time.

Footsteps took him away, and a large symphony orchestra played a simple tune with a marching drum beat which leads to a triumphant conclusion. The man was Moondog, and both the poem and the tune have remained engrained in my brain ever since. This is it…

Louis Thomas Hardin was born on May 26th 1916 and played drums for the high school band in Hurley, Missouri, and learned about Native American music before losing his sight in a farm accident at the age of 16.

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. In 1942 he got a scholarship to study in Memphis, Tennessee, where he learned some music theory from books in braille.

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.

He also incorporated Native American music, along with classical such as symphonies and madrigals, often was mixed with the ambient sounds from his environment, city traffic, ocean waves, babies crying, etc. Much of it is contrapuntal, which he described as “snaketime  … a slithery rhythm, in times that are not ordinary … I’m not gonna die in 4/4 time“.

He also made many of his instruments: this is his trimba, a percussion instrument.

Hardin adopted the pen name ‘Moondog’ in 1947 in honour of a dog “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of.”

He could often be found on New York’s 6th Avenue between 52nd and 55th Street sometimes busking or selling music, but often just standing silent and still.  Already bearded and long-haired, because he had rejected Christianity in his late teens and developed a lifelong interest in Nordic mythology, he added a Viking-style horned helmet to avoid the occasional comparisons of his appearance with that of Christ or a monk. Under his cloak he tapped out his compositions in braille notation.

What I didn’t know in 1970 when I bought his self-titled album, pictured above, was that his music was first recorded in 1949.  Nor was I aware that British jazzman Kenneth Graham had recorded a Moondog Suite in 1957. Thanks to the internet you can download it from here.

Many have cited Moondog as an influence. Steve Reich is among the minimalist composers who acknowledges this in his music. Judge for yourselves.

The late Ivor Cutler wrote whimsical verses while accompanying himself on the harmonium or thumb piano. Listen to this track from his first album Who Tore Your Trousers? (1961) and ponder if he too had heard Moondog’s music.

Cabaret Contemporain are five French musicians from Paris who play électro music with acoustic prepared instruments (electric guitar, piano, drums, 2 double-basses). Last year they recruited two Swedish singers and recorded an album called MoonDog. Listen here and/or download my compilation of twelve tracks, six original versions by Moondog, each one followed by CC’s 2015 version.

Moondog died on September 8th 1999. This year is the centenary of his birth.

©Terry Collins