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Street Musician Louis "Moondog" Hardin Dead at 83

Louis Hardin, known in the music world as "Moondog," died of heart failure Wednesday September 9, 1999 in Muenster, Germany. He was 83. An icon on New York City streets for over 20 years, Hardin stood guard on 6th Avenue and 54th Street. His normal attire, despite any type of weather, was a Nordic style including a homemade robe, horned Viking helmet, long spear, and cape. Considered exotic by some and crazy by others, the blind street performer had a side that not many knew about.

The Early Years

Born in Marysville, Kansas on May 26, 1916, his family later relocated to Fort Bridger, Wyoming where his father, who had been an Episcopal minister, opened a trading post and ran two ranches. Early schooling was a log cabin in Burnt Fork, WY and later in Long Tree. Hardin developed a passion for percussion instruments at an early age, stating his first drum set "... at the age of five, was a cardboard box." His father took him to see an Arapaho Sun Dance where he played a buffalo skin tom-tom while sitting on Chief Yellow Calf's lap. In 1929 Hardin went on to attend Hurley High School where he played, what else, the drums. It was during this time that he was blinded by a blasting cap that went off in his hands.

Hardin transferred to the Iowa School for the Blind where he studied music and completed his high school studies. He learned to play the violin, viola, and piano, and organ while being introduced to classical music. Here he developed the dream to become an orchestra conductor. He then went to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis to learn Braille. He moved to Batesville, Arkansas where he remained until 1942. He later would be a private student with Burnet Tuthill at the Memphis Conservatory of Music.

In the fall of 1943, he traveled to New York City, where he became a fixture outside the stage door at Carnegie Hall. It was here that members of the Philharmonic orchestra helped arrange a meeting with then conductor Arthur Rodzinski. Rodzinski was so taken by Hardin he allowed him to sit in on the closed rehearsals. Rodzinski would also offer Hardin the chance to conduct the orchestra when he had completed a composition. He also met Leonard Bernstein, Arturo Toscanini, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. Lacking the financial means to hire an assistant to help write music, Hardin took to the streets of New York to perform for anything the passers by would give him.

In 1947, Hardin adopted the nickname "Moondog" based on a dog "Who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of." His popularity grew among the people and he would entertain them with an improvisation of percussion music all while dressed as a Nordic warrior. No longer known as Louis Hardin, Moondog would have to resort to legal proceedings against then popular radio disc jockey Alan Freed who claimed the 'Moondog' name for his radio show. Ironic how Freed would later play a 78 recording of his "Moondog Symphony" regularly on in the mid '50s on his Rock 'n Roll Show. This obviously effected the British group Johnny and the Moondogs, because they changed their name to The Beatles.

The '50s and '60s

Moondog believed that conventional instruments could not duplicate the sounds in his head and he, like fellow self styled musician Harry Patch, made his own instruments. His first 45 EP release on Epic Records "On the Streets of New York" was strong evidence of this. Later on Prestige label albums "More Moondog" and "The Story of Moondog" both featured percussion instruments called the 'oo' and the 'trimba' although there is a definite jazz influence. This was brought on by Moondog's introduction to jazz composer-performers like Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. Even though his resources were limited, he was managing to get compositions together and often used the sounds of city traffic, tugboat whistles, and the surf to give his songs their unique sound. By the end of the '50s, he had completed several albums on the Prestige Record label. He had even collaborated with Martin Green and Julie Andrews on an LP of nursery rhymes and children's songs based on the Mother Goose book.

Moondog was regularly seen at his post on 6th Avenue and 54th Street throughout the '60s, selling his music and poetry to anyone who would buy it. He also made money writing various jingles for television and radio commercials. His customary Nordic appearance and various manifestoes on governmental regimentation, the world monetary system, and organized religious made him popular among the Beatniks and later with the flower children of the '60s. In 1967, Janis Joplin along with Big Brother and Holding Company recorded his "All Is Loneliness." Joplin would later re-record it 1972, as the sound systems available in the '60s did not do the song justice. Moondog also made television appearances on the Today Show and the Tonight Show. In 1969, the producer of the highly successful Chicago brought Moondog to the attention of CBS Records. Back by a full orchestra, "Moondog" was released; a compilation of twenty years of Moondog's compositions makes up this astounding set of albums.

Moondog returned to CBS Records and recorded "Moondog 2" which was a collection of rounds composed by the master. While still composing, Moondog had his music featured on the soundtrack for the 1972 Jack Nicholson film "Drive, He Said." In 1974, Moondog disappeared from his spot along 6th Avenue and many people believed he had died. In fact a German radio station, Hessische Rundfunk had invited him to Frankfurt for two concerts. Upon arriving in the homeland of his musical idols, Moondog decided to remain there. It was there that he met Ilona Sommer. Mrs. Sommer's father insisted that Moondog stay with them in their home and who also supported him in his late years.

The '70s to the End

Mrs. Sommer would act as Moondog's transcriber for his music, and also as his publisher and manager. Moondog made this process of composing much easier by writing his works in small parts instead of the entire score, a process he called "intracting" as the entire score could be made by combining all the parts into the whole score. When composers write an entire score, the various parts must be pulled apart in order to be rehearsed and played. Moondog believed that he held the entire score as a whole inside his head and that once the orchestra was assembled, he could bring all the parts together into the finished product. This reduced the amount of time necessary for completing a piece by one half, according to Moondog. It was here in Germany that Moondog released over a dozen more albums and CDs. He also held various concerts from Piano recitals to full symphony performances in Paris, Stockholm, London, Salzburg, Vienna and Munich just to name a few and had audiences of some of Europe's more notable royalty. In 1989, he was invited to return to the United States where he led the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. Critics at the time describe his style of conducting unorthodox as he would sit to the side and provide the tempo by beat on a bass drum or tympani. Call it what they may, Moondog was a true pioneer in his field and will always be remembered by musicians of all genres. May he rest in musical peace.