Playlist: Keepin’ it unreal with pioneering composer and artist Moondog

By Daniel Goldberg |

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Moondog (Photo: Peter Martens, from the collections of the Netherlands Photo Museum)

In this photo of Moondog, photographer Peter Martens captures the eccentric man as he was best known: standing on a Manhattan street corner, wielding a menacing Viking spear, sporting an impressive beard not unlike Gandalf the Grey's, and cloaked in robes like a Jedi Master. The striking outfit was rounded out with a horned helmet the likes of which could be seen in Die Walküre. In the faces of the New Yorkers who walk by, you can see astonishment, curiosity, and even indifference. But what few of the scores of people who passed by this enigmatic display realized that they were walking by one of the great minds of 20th-century music, Moondog.

A musical enigma of his time, Louis Hardin, better known as "Moondog," was a rebellious American composer, musician, and jack-of-all-trades who made his mark in the last half of the 20th century. His compositions always rode on the edge of genres, finding their ways into classical, jazz, rock, and world music. Though a self-proclaimed “classicist” like Bach, Wagner, and Brahms, Moondog is considered to be one of the fathers of Minimalism. “With spear in hand,” he once wrote, “I defend those values [of being a classicist] against all comers. I am a tonalist at odds with all atonalists, polytonalists, quartertonalists, computerisers, etc.” Those influenced by Moondog range from Philip Glass (with whom he lived in New York City for a short time), Arturo Toscanini, Frank Zappa, and Charles Mingus.

Born in a small town in northeastern Kansas, Hardin was introduced to music and arts at a young age — his father was an Episcopal preacher and his mother was the church's accompanying organist. In particular, the young Hardin took to percussion music. His biography, Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue, explains that his father, who recognized his interest in drums, would take him to Arapaho Sun Dances, a ceremony that is central to the religious identity of Indigenous people of the Great Plain. Hardin would play along on drum and learn from members of the tribe.

Starting in his childhood, Hardin would also invent percussion instruments, something that he would continue to do till the end of his life. At age 16, an accident left him blind, and the following years proved to be a struggle as he coped with the aftermath and learned Braille. He also became estranged from his family after a bitter divorce between his mother and father. All of which led him to pack his few possessions and set out for New York City in 1947.

Dressed in Viking attire; horned helmet, spear, and lengthy beard, Moondog became a musical fixture in Midtown Manhattan (he was usually stationed around Avenue of Americas and 54th Street). There, he would perform and sell his music and poetry all while finding inspiration for his art in the sounds of bustling New York.

In 1949, Moondog scrounged up enough money to record “Moondog’s Symphony.” The music represented something previously unheard, and he gained an underground following after its release. He played late night clubs around New York, catching the attention of musicians like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Charlie Parker, and Charles Mingus as well as beatnik, hippie, and otherwise iconoclastic artists like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Salvador Dalí, and Lenny Bruce.

Hardin’s underground celebrity eventually translated into mainstream success. He was signed to a major label and his music was performed by popular artists such as Janis Joplin and the Big Brother Holding Company, who covered his “All is Loneliness.” Moondog rejected his fame, though, for fear that it would commercialize and alter his sound. He opted to continue to play on the streets and sought to improve his musicianship. Most people passed by, thinking him a busker or beggar. Several times, he was ordered by the police to stop performing.

In 1974, Moondog moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where a local radio station Hessische Rundfunk sponsored a tour of his music. He then roamed Europe, playing on concert halls and street corners alike. In 1976, he met Ilona Sommer, who would eventually become his agent and publisher. Sommer also oversaw saw the transcription of his music from Braille to written notations. In his lifetime, Moondog went on to release seven more albums as his music was performed all over the world. He died at the age of 83 in Munster, Germany, leaving behind a treasure trove including over 80 symphonies and hundreds of songs, chamber, percussion, and vocal works. And luckily for music lovers, there are many more still to be discovered and transcribed.

Enjoy our curated playlist of Moondog music below!