Moondog III: Harps and Guitars

I had been making instruments, sort of, since high school. I fell in love with the classical guitar thanks to Andres Segovia and not long after fell in love with luthiery thanks to Irving Sloane’s marvelous book Classical Guitar Construction. I’m not sure when Glenn Johnson caught the romance of it, but by the time Moondog came to stay with us we were both spending a lot of time making musical instruments.

Moondog playing the harp we built, from an article the Capital Times newspaper.

Moondog with the harp we built, from an article in The Capital Times newspaper.

As an accomplished sarod player, Glenn knew Indian classical music, and it was he who started us making our own versions of the mridangam drum, a hollow cylinder of wood about 30 inches long that’s played horizontally, one hand on each side. We cut beveled staves, assembled them into a tapering barrel, lovingly rounded the form, soaked some goatskin, and stretched the wet skins over each end.

I was also making zithers, lute-like things with elaborate rosettes, and crazy, unplayable instruments that would have fit well in that first Star Wars bar scene. One was a balalaika-type stringed instrument with a hollow neck/fingerboard that served as a flute you could finger the holes of even as you fretted the strings.

Being broke, we got all our wood from the discards of a nearby lumber yard, diving into their big Dumpsters and digging out piles of oak, maple, and cherry-wood scraps. We had a table saw and jigsaw and workbenches in the basement, but in summer we set up shop on the long back porch of the farmhouse.

When Moondog played our drums, heard us cutting or sanding in our outdoor workshop, and explored with his fingers a mini-lute I’d built, he made us a proposition.

He believed that the time was ripe for a revival of the small harp — a troubadour harp. The small harp had been popular  as a solo instrument and an accompaniment for singing in old Ireland, but for some reason had not taken root in the United States. But times had changed, Moondog felt; our gypsy generation embraced some of the culture of the wanderers and bards of old.

He personally wanted one, but he also believed the world was ready for a portable, simple, affordable harp, and, practical sort that he was, he was sure there’d be a huge market for them. Glenn and I would be in the vanguard and get rich making the things.

I had always liked classical harp music, but I’d never actually seen a harp in the flesh. Fortunately, the harp professor at the University of Wisconsin kindly let Glenn and me spend an hour getting acquainted with one of the U.’s big Lyon & Healy concert harps.

The double-stop harp is an awe-inspiring creature, over six feet tall, at once solid-seeming and airy. It represents the pinnacle of Victorian-era mechanical technology: In addition to its wooden components, it has over 1,700 moving parts. Seven foot pedals move shafts in the pillar linked to a series of levers called fourchettes, forks, two for each string. When these rotate, they shorten or lengthen the string by a half-step, allowing the instrument to play in any key.

Their aesthetic design echoes classical Greek and Romanesque sensibilities, with a fluted pillar and floral relief carving, often gilded. The belly of the sound board makes a lovely tulip curve, and the “neck” arc is as graceful as a swan’s neck. This swan’s neck is actually the product of sophisticated mathematics and it was this harmonic curve we most needed to understand.

What Moondog wanted was a much simpler thing, a variant of the traditional Irish harp, with strings tuned to a diatonic scale and no fourchettes. Still, we needed to know string lengths and spacing and some sense of soundboard width and body volume. So we brought rulers down to the basement instrument storage room in the University music building, where we filled a small notebook with diagrams and measurements.

It took us a few weeks to design and build the harp. By day, Moondog racketed away on his Braille slate; by night he played music with us. He gave us a copy of his Columbia album, Moondog 2, a collection of quirky orchestral pieces — I thought of them as classical minimalist Baroque — which we very much enjoyed. He listened to the music we wrote and played.

It was while we were building the harp that he made a second suggestion that directly affected the future course of my life: I should record my guitar-playing and have a record pressed. It’s a routine practice today, yes, but back then it was not. I had no idea such a thing was possible. He assured me that it was and that this would be a good way to get some attention for my music, because that’s what he had done, many years before.

In person, Moondog wasn’t “heavy” in the cliche sense, a guy given to making urgent, oracular pronouncments. But in his unassuming, pragmatic way, he demonstrated a key trait of all the remarkable people I’ve met: a contagious enthusiasm that changes lives.

Next: Moondog IV: My First Brush with Fame.


2 comments on “Moondog III: Harps and Guitars

  1. Amaury Cornut

    Dear Daniel,

    I’m a young french (26 old just today), working on Moondog since 2009 on my website and several projects (bands, concerts, exibitions,) and in March I’ve publish the Moondog’s french biography. In my pages I talk about you, with quoting your name (cause I was aware Moondog build a harp you young people but don’t know who). So I’m so please to read your story (my informations were good). And see the picture with the harp. So nice. Maybe we will be abble to get connected and talk.

    Have a nice day, and thanks for reading.


      Thanks for saying hello! I visited your Moondog site and am so pleased and amazed that we share an interest in this fascinating person. Also, thank you for your kind words. Recently, I was sorting through some old photographs and I found some ancient photos I took of Moondog’s harp. I was so proud of the carving I did on the end blocks! I think perhaps I should post a short piece on the harps and other odd instruments I’ve made, which I am sure you would find amusing. For some insight into another strange, wonderful person, please check out my blog comments on John Fahey, the legendary American guitarist who greatly influenced me. In the meantime, please write again and tell us more about your interests and activities!

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