Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue
An Authorized Biography by Robert Scotto

Chapter Three: Snaketime (1943-1953)

New York is a frightening, intimidating place for a stranger, literally just off the bus, with little spending money and no immediate employment opportunities. For a blind musician who had never really been on his own, only a few months away from his father's house and days from his first wife, the experience might seem over-powering. But Louis adapted quickly and well to the realities of big-city life and within days was on his way to becoming self-supporting; more important for the composer to be, he began to make music. The next decade of his life was filled with significant events: a romance, an exciting association with the New York Philharmonic; a cross-country trip; his first parcel of country land; his earliest recordings and his first street performances; and his second marriage. He would become soon what he was to remain for a long time: to some, a genuine and original artist; to others, a character and an eccentric; to still others, an enigma and even something of a threat. In 1947 he would christen himself Moondog, the only name he was to use professionally, emerging, as he saw it, a new man at thirty-one making a fresh start out of a great deal of loneliness and pain. One thing was clear from the moment he stepped off the bus, however: he was now indisputably in charge of his own life.

It was chilly that Saturday morning in November of 1943 when he "hit the sidewalks of New York." After staying at a hotel for a few nights -- at two dollars a shot -- he realized that his pocket money (sixty dollars, some from Ruth, now in Texas, some from I. L. Meyers) would soon run out, so he set out to find a room and a job. Fortunately, he met an art model who introduced him into several academies -- the Phoenix school was one -- where he made some money posing; the same young man also located an inexpensive place to live right in the mid-town area. Luxurious it was not -- as all of his apartments in New York were not -- but it became his home for the next four years, a tiny skylight room at five dollars a week in a building between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, at 332 West 56th Street, long since demolished. It was to a visitor who followed him up four flights of stairs "two at a time," (Natalie Davis in PM Magazine , Jan. 13, 1945) cold and small, decidedly uninviting: cold because Louis kept the skylight open all of the time and as small as a "large closet," with a padded sleeping bag on the floor and, next to it, an organ. Some crates, braille books and a tiny electric stove filled whatever sparse floor space was left. In such spartan digs eating in was rather tricky -- usually confined to porridge in the morning. Partially out of preference and partially out of necessity, his diet was composed mainly of raw vegetables, fruit and "black bread."

In a second floor studio was Anna Naila, a woman much older than he, who became, first, his greatest friend and then the next great love of his life. Their relationship, their affair, lasted for most of the four years during which they lived in the same building and until Louis pressed his desire to marry her in 1947; it ended when he decided, for the first of many times, to leave New York. She was not only the latest in a series of lovers who were in some way mother figures, but she also had a considerable impact on the music he was beginning to compose. She was the first of several committed copyists in his lifetime, intelligent, devoted musicians who, often for nothing, worked painstakingly for the artist they believed in. Thus she would transcribe the music he wrote at a desk or a table, without an instrument, one note at a time: "He has to read each note to me," she said. "He has to say 'half note third line, full note first,' and so forth. It takes a long time." To an eyewitness this "small, sallow-faced woman in slacks," with her "long black hair neatly rolled into a bun," was visibly tired by this effort. To Louis she was a revelation: a classical dancer, a ballet teacher, "quite oriental looking," laboriously transcribing his work at a card table. To her he dedicated his earliest "classical" pieces, "Callisto" in 1946, a 12 part canon on a 8 bar theme, and "Portrait of a Monarch" around 1945 -- conceived then and worked out several decades later. Two rhythm pieces, recorded in her studio during a lesson, appeared on albums in the late fifties. The logistics of composition, which he faced his entire creative life in New York, first presented themselves: from the beginning he wrote as much music as he could in as little space as possible, rounds and madrigals which yielded the most sound for the least amount of ink. One work, "Lullaby," music by Louis, words by Naila, and dedicated to "Wendy's doll, Margaret," survives in the possession of one mother, Magda Luft, whose daughter danced to the efforts of the collaborators.

Louis rather quickly became a social animal, even a celebrity of sorts, in a mid-town bohemian circle. One young lady was so taken with Louis when he modeled in her art class in 1944, Barbara Prentice, whose father was an editor at Time-Life, that she escorted him about to various sites. A singer at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Elsie Marcello, not only befriended him but also enriched his quest for a musical identity. With Naila he went to Coney Island several times. Two young women from Princeton, who sang in a chorus with the New York Philharmonic one Easter, took him on a tour of the Cloisters. A poetess with a bohemian social statement to make, Mary Siegrist, arranged a party for Louis and another honored guest in 1944: Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora, who also dressed in clothes of his own creation. Instead of Louis's plain and utilitarian squares, though, designed for simplicity and symmetry, Mr. Duncan's were "elaborate and expensive," of woolens woven into a classic toga. Ms. Siegrist often entertained Louis in her Carnegie studio, and it is she who must get credit for composing the first public celebration of the new force in town, a poem entitled "Young Blind Composer."

Lone traveler on your mountain height
Enshadowed in what depthless depths of light,
Leaning aginst what darkness,
Taking the darkness for pillow for your head --
As pillow, softly encompassing you --
What inner light irradiates all your world,
What inner gleam shines to the far-off worlds,
What unspent inner flame is burning through the night?
How came you here, staffed Wayfarer,
Part plunged in what a darkness,
But with remembered joy still singing in the heart?

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