Moondog, aka Louis Hardin, a street musician who entertained New Yorkers (and later Germans) with his songs and poetry, departed this earth in 1999. He left behind a body of work that’s nothing short of remarkable.
Some of it has been available through reissue labels, some unobtainable for years. It’s down to those fine folks at Honest Jon’s in Portobello Road, West London, also responsible for such nuggets as the calypso set London Is The Place For Me and the Afel Bocoum and Damon Albarn Mali Music album, that Moondog has been neatly compiled for today’s aural thrillseeker.
Often superficially bracketed with Saturn’s own left-field big band leader Sun Ra, or hobo artist and musical inventor Harry Partch, all Moondog really shares with either man is that he stubbornly followed his own path. Though blinded in an accident when a teenager, he had experienced an Arapaho sun dance when still a child, and recognised rhythms, common to jazz, which were to have a profound effect on his own later work.
While at Iowa School for the Blind, the young Hardin studied violin, viola, piano and organ. His talent was recognised, but events conspired so that by the late 1940s, the strong-headed musician was on the streets, bearded, clad head-to-foot in Viking garb, and beginning nearly half a century of intermittent recording that this album attempts to encapsulate. He had become Moondog.
As the world gets smaller, so Moondog’s music has sneaked into the popular consciousness. Stamping Ground, not featured here, cropped up to fine effect in The Big Lebowski. Moondog’s signature tune Lament 1 ‘Bird’s Lament’, which is included, is a favourite of BBC arts programmes, for those moments when Arvo Part, Goldfrapp or Calexico just won’t do.
His work spans dramatic full orchestral pieces; medieval madrigals; Eastern-influenced chimes; whimsical poetry; all shot through with his distinctive popping and shuffling percussion. Trying to nail it down to something all-embracing – “jazz or” “classical” – is like trying stroke an eel. Minimalist composers tried to claim him as their Godfather, an accolade he swiftly declined.
To sit down and listen to all 36 (mostly) short pieces on the single disc of The Viking of Sixth Avenue in one sitting – not necessarily recommended – is like being given the keys to another world. Try to look for highlights? You can’t go far wrong: Viking 1 is as beautiful a musical box chime as you’ll ever want to go to sleep to; Lament 1 swings like swing never did; Enough About Human Rights (“What about snail rights?” indeed) is a fine example of how Moondog’s humble vocal stylings captivate the listener.
No doubt the temptation would be to file The Viking of Sixth Avenue under avant garde. The thing is, you could play this to a child and they’d understand it, just as well as Charlie Parker or Janis Joplin once did, as well as eggheads like Elvis Costello and Steve Reich still do. All you need is your imagination.