Snaketime in the Big Apple - A brief guide to Moondog

Chris Rainier 6 May 2021

Also known as the "Viking of 6th Avenue", Moondog is most widely recognised as among the most prolific blind experimental artists to ever grace the streets of New York—Chris Rainier takes a look at his remarkable life 

Who was Moondog?

Moondog

A striking presence on the streets of New York City between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, the composer, poet and street performer known as Moondog would become as iconic a part of the city’s cultural architecture as the Brooklyn Bridge. Taking up his almost daily position on the corner of 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas (known to cops and cabbies as “Moondog’s Corner”), the man whom passers-by would eventually call the “Viking of Sixth Avenue” was an imposing yet mesmerising oasis of calm on the busy streets of the Big Apple.

Six feet tall and blind, with long hair and a beard worthy of a prophet, Moondog usually dressed in a handmade cloak, leather patchwork trousers and a Viking helmet, often holding a spear for added dramatic effect. For decades he entertained locals and tourists alike, reciting and selling his poems, sheet music and recordings, and performing his numerous compositions. Few of the curious onlookers could have guessed that Moondog—who they often assumed was either homeless, uneducated, down on his luck, or at the mercy of his disability—was in fact none of those things.

Although he would become a fixture of New York City’s landscape for over three decades, Moondog was born Louis Thomas Hardin Junior, in Marysville, Kansas on  May 26, 1916, coincidentally sharing a birthday with Miles Davis! The son of an Episcopal minister, and a distant cousin of the infamous Old West outlaw John Wesley Hardin, his musical influences were cemented early on—initially by the sounds of ragtime and military brass bands. These left a pervasive swing influence in his work, as well as a penchant for brass instruments.

"Moondog was an imposing yet mesmerising oasis of calm on the busy streets of the Big Apple"

The second influence was one that he likened to a metaphysical experience—as a child visiting a nearby Arapaho tribe with his father, he witnessed a traditional Sun Dance ceremony, later sitting in the lap of their chief Yellow Calf whilst playing a tom-tom made of buffalo hide. This revelatory moment was arguably the spark that gave birth to Moondog’s unique sense of rhythm, which he nicknamed “snaketime”—a slippery, pulsing rhythm often using five or seven beats to a measure, that a ballerina friend first referred to as “snaky”. So passionate was Moondog about syncopation that he often complained: “the human race is going to die in 4/4 time”!

Why "Moondog"?

Four years after his arrival in New York City in 1943, Louis Hardin became Moondog, inspired by a three-legged childhood pet bulldog named Lindy he recalled from his childhood in Missouri, “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew.”

Don't judge a book by its cover

Moondog was blinded at the age of 16 when a dynamite blasting cap exploded in his hands. However, this traumatic accident never got in the way of his determination of becoming a composer—he soon learned Braille music notation, and later studied stringed instruments, organ and harmony at the Iowa School for the Blind.

His ability to completely focus his attention and keep specific sounds in his mind meant that he was often able to compose without a piano, whilst standing on a noisy city street. He would methodically punch out a new piece’s notation in Braille under his robe, to be later transcribed by an assistant who would read the music back to him. Only then could the piece be notated as a score.

Although his creative process was often laborious, Moondog was incredibly prolific and eclectic, composing 81 symphonies, over 50 songs, and numerous works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano and organ. He did so in an impressive range of styles: Baroque-style canons and rounds (as in Row, Row, Row Your Boat), experimental jazz, Medieval-type songs, and a driving percussive musical language that would greatly influence the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Moondog actually lived with Glass and his wife for a year in the 1960s, rehearsing weekly and recording with both him and Reich, before eventually moving to Europe permanently in 1974. He would return only once more to the hustle and bustle of New York City, for a single concert in his honour, eventually passing away in Germany in 1999 at the age of 83.

"He would return only once more to the hustle and bustle of New York City after moving away in 1974"

Under the Influence

From the moment Moondog got off the bus to New York City in the early 1940s, he caught the attention of a variety of celebrities, artists, musicians, tourists and of course, New Yorkers. With barely a month’s rent, no contacts and no immediate employment opportunities, he quickly adapted to the realities of being alone, potentially homeless and blind in an incredibly intimidating urban environment—within days he was supporting himself financially and gathering around him a legion of admirers, collaborators and supporters.

Not only did he hang out and perform with Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg and author William Burroughs, he also became friends with comic Lenny Bruce, director Martin Scorsese and the iconic Muhammad Ali—who insisted on calling him either “Moon”, or “Dog”, but never both. On occasion, the legendary actor Marlon Brando would visit and play the bongos with him in his tiny hotel room.

"The legendary actor Marlon Brando would visit and play the bongos with him in his tiny hotel room"

Although Moondog’s early professional associations were with performers from the classical and jazz music realms (Igor Stravinsky, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus), the list of musicians who either collaborated with or were influenced by him is even longer. Julie Andrews (yes, from the Sound Of Music!) recorded a children’s album with Moondog in the 1950s, whilst Bob Dylan wrote a poem about him in 1963.

Janis Joplin and her band Big Brother and the Holding Company included a cover of his song All Is Loneliness on their 1967 debut album, interpreted again decades later in concert by Antony and the Johnsons. During his decades on the streets of New York, Moondog managed to share the stage with a dizzying array of iconic musicians and songwriters including Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez and Tiny Tim. The late great David Bowie proclaimed that seeing Moondog in the flesh for the first time was his first cherished memory of New York. Marc Bolan from glam rock legends T.Rex namechecked him in their 1972 song Rabbit Fighter, whilst The Band (originally Dylan’s backing group) titled their 1973 record Moondog Matinee.

For a composer whose work for the most part existed way outside of the mainstream, Moondog’s music firmly crossed over into the commercial realm when a sample of the distinctive saxophone riff of his Lament I, “Bird’s Lament” (originally intended for jazz legend Charlie Parker) formed the backbone of DJ Mr. Scruff’s global hit single “Get a Move On”, from his 1999 album Keep It Unreal.

Building the sounds of snaketime

From the late 1940s-onwards Moondog began inventing and constructing a number of unique, mostly percussive instruments, giving his “snaketime” rhythms even greater sonic distinction and an additional visual dimension. These included his most famous creation—the “Trimba” (originally a set of ten triangular drums of various sizes he called “dragon’s teeth”).

Other colourfully named musical devices followed: the “oo” (a 25-string triangular harp); the “tuji” (an instrument with nine tuned wooden pegs); the “hüs” (a triangular stringed instrument played with a bow), the “utsu/utzu” (a simple five-note keyboard), and the “uni” (a seven-stringed zither).

Exploring Moondog's work

Moondog’s first release on a commercial label, simply entitled Moondog (1969, Columbia Masterworks, later Sony) is a great place to start exploring his unique artistic vision. Also seek out Moondog 2 (1971), The Story of Moondog (a reissue of his late Fifties pressings on the Prestige label), Moondog On The Streets Of New York (a collection of early recordings “in the field”), and the soundtrack to the 2017 documentary The Viking Of Sixth Avenue. Don’t forget to watch the film too!

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