by Ed Morman
From the Editor: With some regularity we spotlight books in the tenBroek Library. Here is librarian Ed Morman's description of a recent acquisition:
We’re all familiar with the tired stereotype of blind people having greater innate musical talent than the sighted. While your tenBroek Library staff has no interest in encouraging such foolishness, we have noticed that a good number of blind achievers--including Louis Braille, himself--have been accomplished musicians.
Among the more fascinating of those blind musicians is Louis Thomas Hardin Jr. (1916 to 1943), better known to some as Moondog. Hardin was a familiar sight in the 1960s to office workers, tourists, and others who had occasion to encounter him stationed on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Dressed in a Viking costume of his own design, this tall, silent, bearded man seemed out of place even in the midst of the great diversity of people that flowed around him. Most simply passed him by, unaware that he was a composer of significance and that he regarded most of the rest of humanity as inferior to himself and other Nordic types.
Hardin was born in Kansas and spent the sighted years of his childhood in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Missouri. Like Louis Braille and Jacobus tenBroek, Moondog lost his sight as the result of a childhood accident (in his case, by tinkering with a detonation cap carelessly left at a construction site). His family lived in Iowa at the time, and he subsequently studied at the Iowa School for the Blind. Unfortunately, he was a quarter century too early to benefit from Kenneth Jernigan’s training program at the Iowa Commission for the Blind.
An exceptional person in every way, Hardin developed his own alternative techniques for getting around. He traveled alone around the U. S., eventually making his way to Manhattan, where there’s a traffic light at almost every corner and where he taught himself to cross streets with confidence (and no white cane) by tuning into the sound of the lights’ changing. He did not, however, go to New York to teach himself how to cross streets; Hardin became Moondog in order to participate in the vibrant musical scenes--classical, jazz, and folk--of the big city.
Moondog was married briefly and fathered a child. He was an honorary member of the New York Philharmonic. He spent time in jail. He didn’t mind leaving a mess for others to clean up. He prevailed on other musicians to provide him shelter when he was broke. And, although he admired the genius of African-American jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and he lived rent-free in the apartment of composer Philip Glass (who is Jewish), his seriousness about being a Viking led him to some distasteful beliefs. In his preface to this book, Glass says of Moondog:
As amazing as he was, he was a difficult guy, and a bit of a racist, too. He spoke of not liking black or Jewish people. He asked me whether I was Jewish, and I said I was. He then wondered why this happened to him--why all his best friends happened to be Jewish and black. He seemed genuinely sad and confused by this unfortunate circumstance.
In 1974, after releasing his second album on the Columbia label, Moondog moved to Germany, where he spent the rest of his life and met with increasing artistic and financial success. Because of his eccentricities and strange appearance, one might expect Moondog’s music to be edgy. In fact it is fairly conservative in its harmonies, while sometimes making use of advanced rhythmic patterns. His music is consistently inventive, entrancing, and worthy of a bigger audience than it currently has.
The inkprint edition of Moondog: The Viking of 6th Avenue comes with a twenty-eight-track CD of Moondog’s music, but you needn’t buy the print edition—or any of Moondog’s CDs—in order to hear his music. This book is already available as a downloadable Talking Book from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. And to satisfy your curiosity about this unique individual who happened to be blind, check out the many samples of Moondog’s music on YouTube <www.youtube.com>. You’ll be glad you did.