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. Rather than playing in the thriving jazz clubs at the time he decided to go with the vocation of 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.

 Moondog made his own instruments despite being blind.

Moondog made his own instruments despite being blind.

Making himself a reputable member of musics avant-garde, writing and selling books and music, at the time Moondog was somewhat an urban myth/legend amongst New Yorkers. Passers by were both stunned and fascinated by him because the guy dressed in full Viking ragalia complete with homemade leather pants, a helmet and a cape. At the time absolutely bonkers, but sitting here thinking about it, that wouldn’t come as much of a shock in this lifetime. One New Yorker on a forum recalled,

”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 was a strange character, and blind, 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. It just goes to show that some of the most creative people are the ones you might overlook or consider to be simply nuts. Often, they are the best ones.

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