Iconoclastic New York musician Moondog had Arkansas roots

By Gene Hyde


Louis Hardin (Moondog) from the 1937 Arkansas College yearbook Photo: Louis Hardin, from the 1937 Arkansas College yearbook

Adorned in a long poncho and Viking helmet, the spear-toting Moondog gained a reputation as New York's most visible and eccentric street person. He died last fall in Germany, but from the late 1940s through the early '70s, Moondog hung out on Sixth Avenue, reciting poetry, playing hand-held percussion instruments and occasionally singing. Moondog's iconoclastic bearing so intrigued Walter Winchell that the noted writer discussed him in his column.

Yet there was far more to Moondog than the wild costumes. He was a noted and influential composer who invented several musical instruments. His recordings gathered a widespread yet cultlike following in all sorts of musical circles, and his fans could be found in such diverse musical genres as classical, jazz and rock 'n' roll. And for several formative years, during the late 1930s, this legendary figure lived in Arkansas, near Batesville.

Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin Jr. in Marysville, Kan., in 1916. The son of an Episcopal minister , young Louis was exposed to rhythm at age 5 when his father took him to an Arapaho sun dance, where he sat in the lap of Chief Yellow Calf and played the tom-tom. Louis naturally was drawn to the drums in high school. It was around that time that he was blinded when a dynamite blasting cap he was handling exploded. After losing his sight, he studied violin, piano and music theory at the Iowa School for the Blind, and braille at the Missouri School for the Blind.

In May 1936, Louis Hardin Sr. accepted a position as the new rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Batesville. The Hardin family moved to the community of Moorefield, just east of Batesville, and Louis, his brother and sister enrolled in Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in 1936.

Louis attended Arkansas College for one year, and was a member of the school's literary society. He was well known around Batesville, and reportedly would walk the railroad tracks from Moorefield to Batesville alone. He took piano lessons from local music teacher Bess Maxfield, and was known as a somewhat eccentric dresser, growing his hair long and wearing a cape in the fashion of European composers.

His father's days at St. Paul's soon came to an end, according to Nancy Britton and Dora Le Ferguson in Worthy of Much Praise: A History of St. Paul's Church. Immediately after the Hardin family had moved to Arkansas, Louis' mother left to attend the University of Wyoming, and his parents soon divorced. When his father remarried, he was forced to resign from the ministry because of church policy at the time. By 1938, Hardin's father was no longer an Episcopal minister, but the family remained in Arkansas for several years. The younger Hardin went to Memphis to study music in 1942.

ON TO NEW YORK

Louis Hardin Jr. moved to New York City in 1943. He had been seriously studying music and composition in braille, and soon began to hang out around Carnegie Hall. One night he was in the front row when a young conductor named Leonard Bernstein played his first national broadcast. "My hand-clap was the first applause he got," Hardin told the London Sunday Telegraph, "and it was heard all over the country."

By 1947, Hardin had adopted the moniker "Moondog," after a childhood pet that howled at the moon. He also began to wear the clothing that made his physical presence so striking. At first he wore old Army blankets, poncho-style, until he discovered that people thought he was "some kind of monk," he told the Los Angeles Times, adding that he "got tired of that, so I started wearing a helmet with horns." He later claimed he adopted the costume as a way to reach the public.

The effect was certainly unforgettable, and often left people with strong impressions: Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie said Moondog looked "like Christ." Even after Moondog stopped wearing his Viking regalia in the 1980s, his appearance was so "shocking" that a British journalist claimed that Moondog was "none other than God the Father from William Blake's engravings."

MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDEST

While his bearing and attire initially called attention to him, it was his musical talent that won him fans. He was befriended by New York Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodzinski in the '40s, who offered to conduct any work that Moondog might give him. Jazz bebop legend Charlie Parker wanted to record with him, only Parker died before the record could be made. Moondog played with jazz bassist Charles Mingus, did a concert with modern composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass and made a record with Julie Andrews. He appeared in the film Chappaqua with beat writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and even did a concert with comedian Lenny Bruce.

His recording career began in 1956 on the jazz label Prestige, and his first three albums on the label are still in print. Moondog, More Moondog and The Story of Moondog featured complex, propulsive percussion lines, melodies influenced by American Indian and Japanese traditions, violins in the Western classical tradition, jazz saxophones, spoken poetry and various environmental sounds, including insects, crashing waves, birds in a forest, and the sound of New York City traffic. He also invented several percussion instruments, including the oo, a stringed instrument struck by a clave, and the trimba, a triangular drum.

Just as his music embraced many traditions, his influence was felt across musical genres. He discussed music with everyone from classical conductor Arturo Toscanini to swing clarinetist Benny Goodman. His influence was even felt in the world of rock 'n' roll. Early on, seminal rock 'n' roll disc jockey Alan Freed called his radio show The Moondog Show, and used Moondog's "Moondog Symphony" as his theme music, all without the composer's permission.

Moondog successfully sued to halt Freed from using his name. At the trial, Igor Stravinsky testified in Moondog's behalf. In the late 1960s, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company recorded a version of Moondog's "All Is Loneliness" on their first album. The Kronos Quartet also has performed his music. Philip Glass, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn have hailed him as an influence.

THE MOVE TO EUROPE: THE MUSIC CONTINUES

In the mid-'70s, Moondog moved to Germany and revitalized another era of his recording career. He recorded 10 albums of original compositions in Europe. His compositions include the nine-hour "Cosmos" for 1,000 musicians and singers, as well as more than 300 canons and 100 keyboard works. His works include the "Minisym No. 1" and "Witch of Endor", which was written for dancer Martha Graham. He also composed a symphony titled "The Overtone Tree", for four conductors. "One to be the general overlooker," he told the Los Angeles Times, "and three sub-conductors to handle their own individual scores."

In 1997, Moondog released his first American recording in 26 years, to great critical acclaim. Recording with the London Saxophonic, Moondog's Sax Pax for a Sax is a thematic album that celebrates the saxophone's musical separation from its roots as a military marching band instrument. The work is exquisitely scored for up to 10 saxophones. This reed choir is accompanied by timpani, Moondog himself on bass drum and contra bassist Danny Thompson (who is best known for his work with such British folk-rock luminaries as Richard Thompson, John Martyn and Nick Drake).

Sax Pax for a Sax is a beautiful, engaging work, a joyous exploration of the diverse and wonderful sounds that a choir of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxes can play, often in pleasant counterpoint to one another. It showcases Moondog's rare gift at synthesizing classical composition with jazz sensibilities. Included in this elegant masterpiece are two tributes to Lester Young and Charlie Parker, two of jazz's most distinctive saxophonists.

Sax Pax for a Sax proved to be Moondog's final American recording. Moondog died from heart failure in September in Germany, his adopted home. Obituaries in London, New York and Los Angeles praised his music, honored his achievements and generally celebrated his iconoclastic life. Few, however, mentioned that he spent a few formative years near Batesville, attending Arkansas College, studying music, adopting an eccentric style of dress, and making plans for his life as a composer.

Originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on March 29, 2000.


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