The story of the Viking of 6th Avenue: a pioneer

The story of the Viking of 6th Avenue: a pioneer

“I thought that if the God my father preached about was good, he wouldn’t have let it happen to me. And if he was all-powerful and looking the other way at the time, he would have restored my sight. But he did neither, and I lost my faith.” (Moondog, The Viking of 6th Avenue, Robert Scotto)

Louis Thomas Hardin was born in Kansas, 1916. His father, a priest, would go on missions around the Midwest, preaching the principles of Christianity to ‘ungodly’ cowboys and Native Americans. It was on journeys such as these that Louis was introduced to the tribal music and traditional drumming techniques that would later form the basis of his own music – it was also when he began to question the religion he had known since birth. The crucial turning point in his life came when, at the age of sixteen, Louis was blinded permanently when a detonating cap he’d found exploded in his face. Gone was his religious faith, gone was his former sense of independence and gradually, as Louis began to delve deeper into music, his family began to dissolve and it was time to strike out and find a new brand of independence.

In 1943, a very different Louis Hardin arrived on the streets of New York City, wearing home made clothes in the fashion of a Norse God, complete with long hair and beard and topped off with a horned Viking helmet and seven foot spear. These streets would become his home, spending roughly thirty years of his life standing on 6th Avenue (usually the corner of 54th and 6th), no matter the weather, panhandling a selection of his musical compositions and poems as well as performing using percussion instruments of his own invention. In 1947, Louis adopted the pen name Moondog, a tribute to a lame-footed farm dog he’d known back in the Midwest who used to howl at the moon. Moondog became very well known in New York, attracting attention, not just for his appearance (my mother used to see him regularly, sometimes sharing shelter in doorways when it was raining, and unsurprisingly found the six-and-a-half-foot Viking more than a little intimidating) but for the music he made, dubbed Snaketime for its unusual, slinky time signatures and also his use of ‘found sounds’, specimens of noises he would hear in the environment around him, captured on a tape recorder and integrated into his visceral, off-kilter beats. His first album, ‘Moondog’, released on Columbia (which he did not allow the label to listen to before it was recorded) is full of ‘found sounds’: ‘Lullaby’ opens with the cries of an infant, ‘Tree Trail’ is underscored by the squawks and twitters of a forest and ‘Big Cat’ incorporates the fierce roar of a Lion. The mixing was extremely complex (for the1960’s), the overall effect, minimalistic. To Moondog, it seems every sound was a form of music: Philip Glass, with whom he lived for the better part of a year, recalls the towering Viking standing on the roof overlooking the river with his bamboo flute, mimicking – more likely playing along with – the horns of incoming boats. Glass, eventually becoming a world-famous composer himself, was significantly influenced by the work of his blind lodger and they collaborated on a number of pieces in the 60’s.

Most Moondog pieces are around two minutes long and some of his most striking works are closer to a minute and a half, sound bites in and of themselves; a thought, a reaction, a simple statement which says no more and no less than it was intended to. This brevity is another aspect of Moondog Minimalism and also, most appropriately, lends itself to the sampling and looping of his compositions: The popular Mr Scruff track ‘Get A Move On’ is a looped and remixed incarnation of Moondog’s ‘Bird’s Lament’: Scruff has sampled the Original Sampler. Other artists who have borrowed or been influenced by his music include Janis Joplin (who covered his song, ‘All Is Loneliness’) Elvis Costello, Mouse on Mars and Anthony Hegarty.

For all his despair at being plunged into darkness by a negligent God, if Louis Hardin had not been compelled to see the world with his ears, there would have been no Moondog, and aspects we take for granted in today’s music – minimalism, sampling, mixing, drum and bass – would be very different and might not exist at all.


Originally published in issue 7 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2009

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