Down Beat 1953 July 1
Oo, That Frantic Snaketime, As Moondog Rises on Discs
Several years have elapsed since a man named eden ahbez (small e, small a) corralled the headlines by writing, and more especially being, Nature Boy. Since the music world is often said to move in cycles, the time may well have arrived for the emergence of such a gentleman as Moondog, beside whom the oddly-garbed ahbez is strictly from Brooks Bros.
Moondog goes a step further than ahbez in other directions. Instead of merely writing compositions, he invents the instruments on which to play them; and instead of merely getting Nat Cole to record for him, he cuts his own EP for Mars, signs a contract with Columbia - and plays every night in the dark corners on the streets of New York.
Moondog writes, he says, in twenty-seven different meters, ranging from 1/8 to 9/2. At a given moment you may find him sitting near the corner of 43rd street and Sixth avenue, his right hand working on a drum at 7/4 while his left beats a 3/8 theme on the oo.
What's an oo? "A harp-like affair with a triangular frame and sounding board; it can be tuned any way I like happen to be pentatonic at the moment, but I change it often. It's played with claves, using a teeter-totter-technique that gives bounce; mostly offbeat playing against drums onbeat playing."
Moondog can explain everything he plays and writes in great technical detail. Sitting in the living-room studio of Tony Schwartz, the street-roaming young engineer whose initiative in recording Moondog on the streets led to the Mars album, I tape-recorded the story of Moondog (né Louis Thomas Hardin) and it came out like this:
"I was born 36 years ago in Marysville, Kan., raised mostly on ranches and trading posts in Wyoming. Drums were my prime concern ever since. I was about 5, when I came in contact with American Indians and sat in the lap of a tribal chief named Yellow-cap who let me play during one of their ceremonials.
"I lost my sight when I was 16, went to a school for the blind in Iowa, took up theory there, studied pipe organ, violin and viola."
Then came Snaketime
Visualizing New York as a mecca for composers, Moondog finally got to Manhattan in 1943, did a little work posing in art schools, and "began experimenting with this new concept of music which I call snaketime. I'm not fond of slogans, but a dancer heard it and said it sounded snaky. It's an easy name to remember."
Scared by talk of an atomic war, Moondog quit Manhattan in 1948 and took off for the west. "In Salt Lake City, I got some leather skins from an artificial limb place, and built a set of square drums out of some piano boards. I did this in the men's room at the Salt Lake police station. In fact, one of the traffic cops helped me nail it together."
Back in New York, Moondog found that no booking agents were breaking down his door to buy snaketime. And so, in 1949, he began to make a living playing on the street. The Spanish Music Center, among the first to notice his original ideas, recorded him for its Coda label in the winter of 1950, and Jazzbo Collins gave Moondog recognition via WNEW.
Oo, Uni, and Samisen
His chief self-made tools, in addition to the oo, are the uni and the samisen. "The uni is based on the word unison. I use it as a pedal point or drone bass to music written in a 5/6 or 7-tone scale. You can strum the seven strings like a harp, hit them with a mallet, or you can get a weird sound and many harmonic by playing them with a double bass bow. the strings are made of piano wire."
The samisen, as far as I could gather, is a kind of portis on the franistan, which can be glavioleted with artificial snerbs.
What kind of musical brew does Moondog cook out of these ingenious ingredients? "I cling to tonality, to the idea of simple chorus; melody is absolutely essential, and I'm strong on rhythm. Like the orientals, I feel that most occidental music is weird."