Moondog (Louis T. Hardin), composer, Beat poet and street musician, died in Münster, Germany, on September 8 aged 83. He was born in Marysville, Kansas, on May 26, 1916.
For the best part of 30 years, the gaunt, bearded figure of a blind man in a Viking helmet, home-made robe and sandals, distributing his printed poems, music and diatribes while clutching a fearsome-looking spear, was a familiar sight around the junction of 6th Avenue and 54th Street in New York.
Using the name Moondog, in honour of a pet which used to howl at night, Louis T. Hardin was one of the more extraordinary characters of the city's streets. Not only was Hardin an accomplished poet and songwriter, but he was a composer and percussionist, a friend of musicians from Toscanini to Charlie Parker, and an icon of the Beat movement. Janis Joplin had a hit with one of his songs, and others were used in film soundtracks or as advertising jingles.
It was assumed by many Americans that he had disappeared or died after leaving his familiar territory in 1974, and the 1994 Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music concluded its article on Moondog with "nothing has been heard of this remarkable and enigmatic poet for several years". In fact, he had been invited to Germany to perform his music, and when he got there he simply stayed. He found an amanuensis, Mrs Ilona Sommer, who transcribed his work and published his compositions, although she did not deter him from venturing back out on the streets to perform. In due course she persuaded him to discard his Viking garb, but not before it had prevented him from being admitted to a New York Philharmonic rehearsal of one of his pieces.
In old age Hardin liked to direct performances of his music from the bass drum, on which he pounded out a beat while loudly declaiming his poems. On a rare return visit to the United States in 1989 to conduct a programme of his music by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, he spurned the rostrum in order to direct from the percussion section.
It was the same story when he came to the BBC studios in Maida Vale in 1995 to record several of his pieces with the French pianist Dominique Ponty for Radio 3's Impressions. Against a backdrop of his jazz-inflected rhythmic pieces such as Art of the Canon No 13 or Oo Debut, he forcefully laid down bass drum rhythms and passionately declaimed his words.
Hardin, the son of a church minister, lost his sight in an accident in 1932, and completed his education at the Iowa School for the Blind. He became an accomplished musician, and after arriving in New York, befriended the conductor Artur Rodzinski. Playing a variety of percussion instruments, Hardin earned his living as a street entertainer, and his stage-door acquaintances included famous jazz musicians in the clubs on 52nd Street as well as symphonic musicians and conductors a few blocks away at Carnegie Hall.
Both these types of music were incorporated into his own compositions, which he began to record on an ad hoc basis in the 1950s. In particular, the Prestige label, which had Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on its roster, recorded pieces such as Broadway and 52nd Street: the Jazz Corner of The World, as well as distinctly more eccentric works such as a duet for bamboo flute and the whistle of the liner Queen Elizabeth.
The first of Hardin's many "discoveries" came when the disc jockey Alan Freed adopted his Moondog Symphony as a theme tune. Hardin deterred him with legal action, but continued to make occasional discs, including arranging an album of Mother Goose songs for Julie Andrews and recording his influential 1969 LP Moondog.
This was an immediate success among the Beat movement, and its repetitive rhythms and simple counterpoint made it a forerunner of the work of Minimalists such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Hardin maintained that he adopted his regular, cyclic rhythmic style from attending native North American dances as a child, and he recalled performing with a Blackfoot troupe in Idaho in the 1940s. In due course, he integrated his rhymes and chants into his pieces as an additional contrapuntal texture, alongside increasingly dense and complex melodic lines. From the 1950s he composed by writing instrumental parts in braille, but tended never to produce full scores as he felt this involved too much work. He recorded more than a dozen albums of his music. He was twice married and is survived by two daughters.