February 7, 2019

Moondog — On the Sidewalks of New York


LOUIS HARDIN WORE MANY hats: composer, poet, street musician and in the words of composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, “the founder of minimalism.” But Hardin’s favorite hat was a leather Viking helmet complete with horns. He could be seen, complete with Viking costume, playing music on the streets of Manhattan from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Known in New York as the Viking of Sixth Avenue, he was better known in the music world as Moondog.

Born in 1916 in Marysville Kansas, Moondog lost his sight in an explosives related accident at age seventeen. Upon this unfortunate incident, he was placed in the Iowa School for the Blind, where he received a far-reaching musical education that he later claimed would have been otherwise beyond his means.

By the mid 1940s, Moondog had made his way to New York, where he became a street musician playing his compositions on flute, drums and various handmade percussion instruments of his own creation. In 1949, producer Gabriel Oller recorded Moondog’s first records for the SMC-Pro-Arte label — a label that otherwise specialized in Spanish music for Oller’s Spanish Music Center record store. This commenced a long series of recordings for various labels (including Moondog’s own) that would continue for decades.

As a result of recording for these small, independent and vanity imprints, much of Moondog’s music has been unavailable to anyone not fortunate enough to buy copies when they were originally released. These extremely obscure recordings were released as 45rpm or 78rpm extended play singles (EPs) with just two or three short tracks per side. Distribution was often extremely limited and sales were even fewer. Many of these incredibly rare artifacts from Moondog’s early years have now been gathered together for the CD Moondog – The EP Collection (Hallmark 717532).

Native American music was a prime influence on Moondog from an early age and much of his music combines this structure of Native American dance rhythms with European orchestral forms. Tracks like “Rimshot” and “Snaketime Rhythm” dispense with the orchestra altogether and serve as explorations of Native American style percussion rhythms alone.

While relying on percussive rhythms for much of his composing, Moondog’s music shows a wide range of influences, though the basic structure often utilized a repeated percussion rhythm with brief repeated melodic riffs. On the EPs, these riffs were sometimes augmented by string or wind instruments providing a contrapuntal melody to the initial rhythmic pattern.

Moondog loved saxophones and created orchestral pieces with repeating phrases for saxophone that anticipate the minimalist compositions of Phillip Glass thirty years later. “Dog Trot,” which later became one of Moondog’s most recognizable compositions, features one of his earliest arrangements for saxophones and would be expanded on later recordings.

The advanced nature of both Moondog’s composition and the recordings themselves is hard to comprehend today, but in the early 1950s, these were quite unusual. His blending of Native American rhythms and exotic percussion instruments with jazz and orchestral forms anticipates the whole idea of “world music” by forty years. The recording techniques utilized to record these rare singles were remarkably advanced for independent records at the time. The overdubbing of instruments and sound effects provide a much richer audio experience than listeners were used to and in fact rival film audio in their complexity.

Many of his compositions could have been used for film. His music is extremely evocative of moods and his songs generally last between one and three minutes — making them perfect for film scores requiring incidental musical punctuation. Sadly, Moondog never did write a film score, but his work has been heard in a number of movies as well as commercials ­— most notably “Bird’s Lament” which seems to turn up regularly in independent films and TV advertising.

After going to Frankfurt for a concert in 1974, Moondog settled in Germany where he continued to compose, record and give concerts until the mid 1990s. Moondog passed away in 1999 at the age of 83, but CDs such as this one show how timeless his work remains.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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