Remembering Moondog, the Man Who Inadvertently Gave Us Rock and Roll

Let’s go back to the early 1950s when a fast-talking Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed started causing havoc by playing “race records”–what they called R&B records back then–on the radio for a huge audience of white kids. Freed referred to himself as “King of the Moondoggers” and promoter concert events he called “Moondog Balls.” Things got very big very fast.

Then, a problem. A homeless street musician from New York called Moondog told him to cut it out or he’d sue. After a night of drinking with this buddies, Freed came up with a new catchphrase: “rock and roll,” which was an African-American euphemism for “sex.” It stuck and we still use the phrase today.

But what about Moondog? Had he not complained about Freed ripping him off, the phrase “rock and roll” might never have entered our vernacular. What of him? Priceonomics takes a look.

For thirty years, a lumbering, blind “Viking” roamed the streets of New York City.

Armed with a six-foot, steel-pointed spear, a horned, leather-embossed cap, and a long, wispy beard, he’d find a spot along Sixth Avenue, set up his array of homemade instruments, and stand placidly for eight hours, like some ancient humanized statue. Amidst the shrill horns, screeching tires, and tumbling foot traffic of Manhattan, the sightless giant would gently rap on his drum, advertising his wares — a set of albums and hand-written poems — to anyone interested.

To the whole of the public, he was nothing more than a nutty, homeless waif. But unbeknownst to them, the Viking — known more formally as Louis Hardin, Jr., or ‘Moondog’ — had record deals, had been covered by Janis Joplin, and had been endorsed by some of the world’s greatest composers.

Moondog’s legacy is that of a man who endured through tumultuous circumstances — acquired blindness, homelessness, and prejudice — to become who many would call one of the most talented and underappreciated musicians of the 20th century.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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