Moondog: 'The Viking of Sixth Avenue'

Written by Russell McMahon, April 29th 2014

A couple of years ago I discovered this song.

Recognise it? Mr. Scruff made a popular re-work of it. 

Today I discovered the fascinating legend of Moondog; a street performer who devoted his life to music and a counter-culture figure of the 1960s.

They say that the story of many street performers begins with a hard luck story. 

Thomas Louis Harden's, a.k.a Moondog, story begins when he was 16 and was blinded in a dynamite accident on a farm. In 1943, at the age of 27, he arrived on the streets of NYC as a talented musician. Rather than playing in the thriving jazz clubs at the time he decided to stick to the street and became a busking musician and poet. Using handmade drums, flutes and portable keyboards, in addition to his made-up instruments such as the 'trimba' and the 'ooo-ya-tsu', he began making his living on street corners playing jazz music. He made a reputation for himself as a member of musics avant-garde, writing and selling books and music. At the time Moondog was somewhat an urban myth/legend amongst New Yorkers, talked about because the guy dressed in full Viking ragalia complete with homemade leather pants, a helmet and a cape. Sitting here thinking about it, that wouldn't come as much of a shock in this lifetime. But in 1940s this was something bewildering to New Yorkers. One eye witnesses recalled,

                   What it would have looked like

"It was one of those dream-like experiences exacerbated by the fact that [as it must have been the weekend or a holiday of some sort] the entire block-stretch of sidewalk was otherwise deserted--so the experience entailed a chain of perception: first, of hurrying down the street [to catch a train or a movie, probably], turning the corner and almost running into this entirely unanticipated Viking! It was one of those Candid Camera moments, where what you really want is a second opinion, someone, anyone, to confirm that there is indeed a large Viking holding down the sidewalk in midday midtown. And, of course, there was no one!"

Moondog wasn't just some mad geezer from the streets though, he was actually a bit of a genius. He was blind, and yet he made his own clothes and instruments, learned to play by ear and wrote poetry. Though he's always been an outsider in the music industry, his compositions have earned respect from some of world's greatest composers including Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker. Janis Joplin recorded with him as well.

Sadly Moondog passed away in 1999, but he lives on as a cult figure.

A montage showing the corner where Moondog used to play

There is a feature-length documentary about the legend of Moondog currently in production, we'll let you know when it is released.

Posted on April 29, 2014 .