20 March 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media
Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time
But now that its the opposite its twice upon a time
How did a blind, homeless musician dressed as a viking become a central figure in the 1960s New York avant-garde, revered by musicians as varied as Charlie Parker, Steve Reich and Janis Joplin? Here are 10 facts to help better understand the man known as Moondog, composer of “Bird’s Lament”.
An eccentric musician and talented composer, Louis Hardin (a distant cousin of the infamous outlaw John Wesley Hardin) was deeply admired by conductors and musicians alike of all genres.
He once gave conducting advice to the great George Szell, Janis Joplin covered his songs All is Loneliness, he performed with Charles Mingus at the Whitney Museum, and he proudly claimed he was the first to clap for Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall following his conductor debut…though fascinating, these are not even the most interesting elements that make Moondog the unique musical (and indeed social) figure he became over the course of the 20th century.
A Viking in New York
On 4 July 1932 in Kansas, a 16-year-old Louis Hardin unknowingly picked up a live cap of dynamite, which exploded in his face, blinding him forever. As a result, Hardin, the son of an Episcopalian minister, experienced a profound loss of faith, gravitating instead to other forms of spirituality and shamanism.
When later living and performing in the streets of New York, with his long matted beard and tangled hair, the frequent associations with Jesus Christ bothered him so much that he decided to design his own Viking and “un-Christian” costume, in line with his passion for Nordic mythology and culture. Believed by many to be a mere gimmick to draw attention to himself, his attire was in reality an expression of his true identity.
However, Hardin’s atypical sartorial style did not always bring him positive attention. For years a welcome guest at the New York Philharmonic rehearsals, invited by conductor Artur Rodziński himself, Louis Hardin was told in 1947 he could no longer attend the rehearsals due to his unique attire. Rather than conform, Hardin refused and stopped attending the rehearsals. ‘”I had a lot of offers from people who said that they would help me but that I had to dress conventionally […] But I valued my freedom of dress more than I cared to advance my career as a composer. I just wanted to do my own thing.”
Years later, in Stockholm in June 1981, during the inauguration of an exhibition of Viking artefacts at the Stockholm Natural History Museum, Hardin finally discovered that the Vikings never actually wore hats with horns, a truth that shattered a lifelong identity.
There’s only room for one Moondog
What’s in a name? In 1947, Louis Hardin began to wear with pride a name by which he would forever be known: Moondog, inspired by his childhood dog Lindy, “who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew”. Known throughout the streets of New York and its artistic circles as the homeless Viking composer of New York, the name and the figure rapidly became part of New York legend. So much so that the “rock and roll king” Alan Freed decided to use the name Moondog as his own persona after hearing Moondog’s Moondog Symphony, calling his show “The Moondog House” and crowning himself “King of the Moondoggers”.
A Viking warrior to the core, Moondog decided to fight the legendary radio host in court. Perhaps Moondog would have lost his case were it not for the help of renowned musical figures such as Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini, and Benny Goodman, who all expressed their admiration and respect for Moondog, and confirmed his legitimacy to the name “Moondog”. “I don’t know if that decided the case or not but I won the case against Freed and he stopped using the name.“