aus / from: Inter Nationes. German-American Cultural Review, Spring 1994, p. 68-69

Berthold Klostermann


Karoline was only six, but she wanted to marry him. Then he could play the piano for her before she went to bed at night, maybe even some of his H'art Songs. Karoline liked those the best. Her mom's objection that he was even older than grandpa didn't change her mind. It didn't matter how old he was; his songs were young. And her parents could only agree. Today they have their own record label in Bochum devoted to the music of Louis Thomas Hardin, better known as "Moondog". The blind American composer has lived in Oer-Erkenschwick, a town at the northern edge of the Ruhr district, for two decades now. Moving from the metropolis to the province, his is the classical success story in reverse.

Not that Moondog's songs are only for children like Karoline. His simple melodies and absurd lyrics, his plays on words and seemingly naive images, and not least his rasping voice, also appeal to adults. But such H'art Songs play only a peripheral role in Moondog's music. They are casual pieces, more or less written in passing and at odd moments throughout the life of the 78-year-old musician. In these songs the blind bard lightly employs the same techniques that he applies in a more rigid, puristic manner in other compositions.

He considers himself a classicist. For Moondog, the supreme technique in music is counterpoint, which has formed the basis of composition since the Renaissance, if not the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, leading avantgarde composers repeatedly point to his influence on their work. And Moondog himself never tires of clearing up misunderstandings: "If you talk to Phil Glass he'll say, 'Oh no, Moondog, he's the leader of the pack', and that I'm the founder of minimalism. He and Steve Reich made up the name 'minimal', but they attached the word to me. They used to sing my madrigals when we recorded them back in 1969, before they got started with their minimalism. So they claim that I started the whole thing. But I didn't. Bach was doing minimal, too, in his fugues. So what's new? Repetition is basic in music, but my repetitive music is far different from what Glass and Reich are doing. They don't go into the counterpoint like l do. They play a phrase for an hour. It might create a mood, but I'm not interested in that kind of mood. I'm interested in structure, melody, form, development. I follow the old classic values - the art of concealing art, maximum effect with minimum means, logical thematic development, not just constant repetition."

Moondog views contrapuntal technique as the non-plus-ultra of music and, somewhat mischievously and a little tongue-in-cheek, even chides his classical forerunners for their application of the method. He accuses Palestrina, and even Bach himself, of deviating from the rules of counterpoint. And yet Moondog's music doesn't sound classical. Using classical techniques, he achieves non-classical results. The most peculiar thing about his works is their rhythm. His beautiful, timeless music - whether songs or orchestral pieces, canons or chaconnes, madrigals or suites - is always underlaid with distinctive percussion rhythms which the composer himself drums out during concerts. His works resonate with traditional Native American rhythms that Moondog heard as a child when he accompanied his father, an itinerant preacher, on missions to Indian reservations. Moondog still likes to tell the story about how he sat on Chief Yellow Calf's lap and was allowed to beat the mighty sundance drum. Indian beats would eventually become the crux of his music.

Hardin was born in Maryville, Kansas, on May 26, 1916, and grew up in various parts of the Midwest. At the age of 16 he lost his sight when a dynamite cap he was toying around with exploded. He received his first musical training at a school for the blind in Iowa, where he learned to play several instruments, studied choral singing and harmonic theory, and read everything about music that he could find in Braille. He perfected his ear to such an extent that he could convert musical ideas directly from memory into Braille, and he wrote virtually all his compositions without the use of an instrument.

In 1943 Hardin moved to New York, where he became a street musician and called himself Moondog - after his seeing-eye dog, which had a tendency to howl plaintively at the full moon. Until the early '70s he remained on the street, reciting short poems, performing compositions on the drum and the zither, and selling them, printed on leaflets, to passers-by. Fascinated by Norse mythology, he started wearing a Viking costume. Old photos show Hardin with a flowing beard, broad cape, long spear and double-horned helmet, making him look like a slimmer version of Dik Browne's comic figure Hagar. In this outfit he became an institution on the streets of Manhattan. Among the most amusing anecdotes told about him is the one in which the Hilton Hotel listed its address in a New York Times advertisement as "opposite Moondog".

Though scorned by some passers-by as an eccentric freak, if not a charlatan, Moondog was highly esteemed by other artists. On his street corner he met musicians from the New York Philharmonic, who introduced him to the conductor Artur Rodzinski. The latter invited him to attend the orchestra's rehearsals at Carnegie Hall, where he learned a great deal about orchestration and made the acquaintance of Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinski and Leonard Bernstein. To be sure, after Rodzinski left in 1947, the farcical Viking impersonator was no longer such a welcome guest at Carnegie Hall.

Moondog also met the jazz legend Charlie Parker on the street. The saxophonist approached him and promptly said: "You and I should make a record." Parker's sudden death, however, prevented a Bird-meets-Moondog record from materializing. But Moondog was to collaborate with other artists. In 1955, he brought out a successful record of children's songs with Julie Andrews. He also offered a concert with Charles Mingus at the Whitney Museum, and joined Allen Ginsberg at a poetry reading. In 1969, Janis Joplin did a recording of his madrigal "All Is Loneliness" Says Moondog: "She wrecked it." Moondog had already done recordings with several companies, including the renowned jazz label Prestige, when he produced two albums for Columbia in 1969 and 1970. It was the age of the hippie. Bizarre-looking characters with long hair and beards loked out from countless LP covers, and Columbia believed it had found a Viking counterpart to Dr. John's persona on "The Night Tripper" album. At that time, Dr. John liked to dress up as a New Orleans witch doctor.

Then Moondog suddenly vanished from the streets of New York. Some people thought he had died. On a TV talk show, Paul Simon lamented the death of one his musical heroes and models - Moondog. But the Viking look-a-like, who for a long while had felt like a "European in exile", was still alive and kicking - in Germany, where he exchanged his Viking garb for a wool cap and turtleneck sweater. What had happened?

On the recommendation of an organist friend, he had been invited by the Hessische Rundfunk broadcasting network to give two concerts in Frankfurt, and after the performance he resolved to remain in Germany, in the land of classical composers whom he regarded as his spiritual ancestors. He continued his life as a street musician in Hamburg, Hannover and Recklinghausen. Until he was approached one day by Ilona Goebel, then a university student, who invited him to come to her parents' house in the town of Oer-Erkenschwick for a few days.

"My 10-year-old brother," Ilona recalls, "wanted Moondog to come to our house for Christmas because he felt so sorry for him. But none of us dared to ask him. Then I saw a record with his orchestral pieces in a store and bought it. When I heard the music for the first time, I was moved. I couldn't believe that someone who wrote such music had to live like that. So I invited him home."

Where he still lives today. Ilona and her family were able to talk Moondog into shedding his Viking apparel for good and introduced him to a normal middle-class existence. They took him under their wing and made their house into a composer's paradise for him. Ilona broke off her studies, learned how to transcribe his compositions from Braille into normal musical notation, and founded a company to produce recordings of his works. The Bochum Label Kopf Records, run by Karoline's parents, released three Moondog LPs in the late '70s. Then nothing was heard about him for a long while, though Moondog continued to compose tirelessly. Today the list of his works amounts to a small book in its own right.

In the last few years Moondog has made a highly touted comeback. As suddenly as he had disappeared from New York, he reappeared in 1989 at the 10th New Music America Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In a series of performances dedicated to New York music legends from the '40s and '50s, some of whom he had met personally - including Benny Goodman, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Artur Rodzinski - he directed the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra from his drum. The media coverage could hardly have been more effusive, and the New York Times celebrated "Moondog's return". Immediately after the event, however, he promptly returned to Oer-Erkenschwick.

But now the ball was rolling, Moondog was back on the music scene. His old records were reissued on CD; the German press, including Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, did extensive reports on the American bard. The well-known Swiss chanson singer Stephan Eicher asked him to take part in an instrumental arrangement of the traditional Guggisberg-Lied; a California dance theater group created choreography to his music.

New record releases and occasional live performances were soon to follow. On the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1991, an ensemble was founded by members of the Guild Hall School of Music in London for the sole purpose of performing Moondog's compositions. It is called the London Saxophonique and consists of nine saxophones with piano and drum. Following highly acclaimed concerts at the Stuttgart Jazzgipfel, the 1992 Kassel Documenta and elsewhere, the ensemble recorded a CD in Bath, England. Entitled Sax pax for a Sax, it was conceived as a tribute to Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, on the centenary of his death. Besides Moondog himself on his drum, prominent members of the British music scene participated in the production, including rock singer Peter Hammill and double-bass player Danny Thompson.

Sax pax for a sax is an homage by an American living in Europe to a 19th-century French instrument maker whose invention would help define the sound of 20th-century American music, particularly that of jazz. The CD contains songs dedicated to the saxophone players Lester Young and Charlie Parker as well as to the cities of New York, London and Paris. It also includes a piece called "EEC Suite" which - if negotations currently being held by Ilona Goebel are successful - will be performed this fall at the European Community summit meeting in Essen. For Moondog not only considers himself to be a European-American in terms of his music; he also thinks and feels like one.

Essen-based Berthold Klostermann is a freelance jazz critic and concert manager whose writings include the recent book Blue Notes, Black Fiction.