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Remembering Moondog, The Viking Of 6th Avenue

Published: Tue November 18, 2008  News Feed

Most Classical composers write Horn parts....but how many WORN horns? New York has many strange stories...here's one of them! Meet Moondog, blind composer who lived on the streets of Manhattan and was greatly admired by everyone from Charlie 'Bird' Parker and Count Basie to Phillip Glass and Elvis Costello.

Moondog on the streets of New York in the sixties

Moondog was the pseudonym of Louis Thomas Hardin (May 26, 1916–September 8, 1999), a blind American composer, musician, cosmologist, poet, and inventor of several musical instruments. Although these achievements would have been considered extraordinary for any blind person, Moondog further removed himself from society through his decision to make his home on the streets of New York for approximately twenty of the thirty years he spent in the city. But he wasn't actually a homeless, as most of the time he had a room to live. For a while, he lived with respected composer Phillip Glass, and it's easy to hear, in Glass work, a great deal of Moondog's influence.

Moondog in New York

A tall blind man with long hair and beard, wearing a handmade Viking helmet and primitive cloak, he regularly stationed himself at Sixth Avenue and 54th Street, which cops and cabbies knew as Moondog’s Corner. Dispensing his poetry, politics, sheet music and recordings (some on boutique labels, some on majors), he was sought out over the years by beats, hippies and foreign tourists, but also by the media and celebrities, from Walter Winchell and “Today” to Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali and Martin Scorsese.

The public begin to appreciate the extent of this man's talents only in the final decades of Moondog's life, primarily because of his stubborn refusal to wear anything other than his own home-made clothes, all based on his own interpretation of the Norse god Thor. Indeed, he was known for much of his life as 'The Viking of 6th Avenue'.

From the late 1940s until 1974, Moondog lived as a street musician and poet in New York City, busking mostly on 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. In addition to his music and poetry, he was also known for the distinctive Viking garb that he wore, which included a horned helmet. He partially supported himself by selling copies of his poetry and his musical philosophy. Because of his street post's proximity to the famed 52nd Street nightclub strip, he was well-known to many jazz musicians and fans.

Moondog's work was early championed by Artur Rodzinski, the conductor of New York Philharmonic in the '40s. He released a number of 78s, 45s and EPs of his music in the 1950s, as well as several LPs on a number of notable jazz labels, including an unusual record of stories for children with actress Julie Andrews in 1957. For ten years no new recordings were heard from Moondog until producer James William Guercio took him into the studio to record an album for Columbia Records in 1969.

The track "Stamping Ground", with its odd preamble of Moondog saying one of his epigrams, was featured on the sampler double album Fill Your Head with Rock (CBS, 1970). The melody from the track "Bird's Lament (In memory of Charlie Parker)" was later sampled by Mr. Scruff as the basis for his song "Get a Move On", which was then used in commercials for the Lincoln Navigator SUV.

In a search for new sounds, Moondog also invented several musical instruments, including a small triangular-shaped harp known as the "Oo", another which he named the "Ooo-ya-tsu", and (perhaps his most well-known) the "Trimba", a triangular percussion instrument that the composer invented in the late 40s. The original Trimba is still played today by Moondog's friend Stefan Lakatos, a Swedish percussionist, to whom Moondog also explained the methods for building such an instrument.

In 1974 Moondog moved to Germany, where he died aged 83 in 1999. Almost ten years after his death, he's still not a household name - as the British music critic Kenneth Ansell observed, “the classical orthodoxy has not rushed to embrace him".

Cover of Moondog 2, his second album

But his mixture of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven with jazz was pioneering, and he's starting to get more recognition. In 2007 there was a Moondog festival in New York, and a biography, "The Vikinig Of 6th Avenue" has also been published.

Watch: Moondog, "Lament #1"

sources:

Wikipedia

New York Times article

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