The Viking of Sixth Avenue

Moondog

album cover

An Introduction to a True Original

This is the first decent anthology devoted to the zany multi-instrumentalist Louis Hardin, who called himself Moondog and was happiest performing his "symphonies" and strange fusions of jazz, classical, and Native American chant on the streets of New York. In a Viking suit. In all kinds of weather. He was one of Manhattan's most famous and enigmatic street fixtures, and over the decades his acquaintances and champions included Charlie Parker, Igor Stravinsky, Janis Joplin, and Frank Zappa.

As a child growing up in Arkansas and then Wyoming, Moondog (1916–1999) went with his father to an Arapaho Sun Dance ceremony. This left a deep impression; much of his music is set to the steady thrumming of the tom-tom, an integral part of Native American music. Moondog also incorporated the ritual chanting patterns of ceremonial music from around the world, and after moving to New York in the late '40s, began integrating elements of jazz—though he told an interviewer that some of his esteemed solos, like the one on "Lament I: Bird's Lament," were actually written out note for note.

A happy outsider who largely disdained traditional performance outlets like clubs and concert halls, Moondog did manage to document his ideas on records for several labels (Joplin, who recorded his madrigal "All Is Loneliness" on the debut album by her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, helped get him a contract with Columbia). His compositions have the wild inventiveness of music made by a child: There are trancelike explosions of interconnected rhythm, and catcalls from bleating and shouting saxophones, and fantastical cartoonmusic whiz-bangs. Most of the time Moondog overdubbed all the parts himself, re-creating the slightly wacky house band he heard in his head. It's some of the most inventive music the New York streets ever produced.

Genre: Jazz
Released: 2006, Honest Jon's
Key Tracks: "Lament I: Bird's Lament," "All Is Loneliness"
Catalog Choice: Moondog I and II.
Next Stop: Harry Partch Ensemble: The Music of Harry Partch
After That: The Residents: God in Three Persons
Book Page: 518

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Comments:

#1 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 07/13/2009 5:21

I am a big Moondog fan, and I’d also recommend “Sax Pax for a Sax,” which is a later album (1997) where Moondog is joined by an all-sax ensemble, The London Saxophonic.

It includes a fantastic version of “Bird’s Lament,” which I think many people will be surprised to recognize and learn is Moondog, as it’s been widely sampled and imitated in other peoples’ musics.

I would tend to characterize “Moondog” as a good intro album to get a good first impression of the scope of Moondog’s originality and personal approach to music. But, “Sax Pax for a Sax” could work as another kind-of intro, wherein one might get a good first impression of the depth and beauty of his work, as well.

Across the span of his music, one thing that stands out to me is how strong was Moondog’s approach to melody—and how beautiful are those melodies that he composed. And, I say that in recognition that Moondog was also a great composer of interesting and original rhythmic and harmonic music, as well.

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Oh, and one other notable fact about Moondog that you didn’t mention: Moondog was blind.

So, not only was he a musician spending most of his life playing wholly original music on the streets of New York dressed up in homemade clothes as a Viking, but he was a BLIND musician spending most of his life playing wholly original music on the streets of New York dressed up in homemade clothes as a Viking!

Still, if you haven’t explored Moondog, I’d sayL forget the facts for now, and go listen to his music.

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