Moondog IV: Life Turns

After seven years of studying classical guitar, I was moving toward what eventually became known as “American fingerstyle.” The intricate solos I wrote incorporated elements of whatever I’d listened to and loved: English and American folk, pop, jazz, blues, ragtime, Indian music, and Western classical and Baroque. I bought a steel-string Martin and enjoyed changing its tuning to produce unusual pitch combinations.

A classic double-action harp by Lyon & Healy.

A classic double-action harp by Lyon & Healy.

Moondog appreciated the eclecticism of my music and suggested I record an album. Nowadays, anyone can self-produce an album, but back then the technology was not easy to find. Until Moondog described his own experience, I had no idea you could hire someone to stamp vinyl and print album jackets for you.

Moondog said that’s how he’d started getting noticed: He had self-produced an album of his own drumming, solo but over-dubbed many times. He’d handed them out, sold some, recorded another, got noticed more, and . . . . pretty soon he was one of the ten heaviest dudes on the North American continent. Even before Glenn and I finished building his harp, I began to polish my compositions and look into recording and pressing services.

Meanwhile, Moondog had gotten noticed by the press. The Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times interviewed him, and us, and came out to our farm to get background for in-depth articles.

What they saw: One tall blind Viking, eight early-twenties men and women, mattresses on the floors, a shambles of a woodshop on the porch, and in the kitchen a health-food candy bar cookery that left the counters and floor perpetually sticky with molasses. I was into boxing and we’d set up a sparring ring in the barn. One of our batches of cranberry wine had gone unexpectedly effervescent and one night blew twelve corks across the meditation room, covering our sky blue carpet and the far wall with red-pink stains that never did come out.

Being sightless, Moondog may not have known just how funky our household would look in the camera’s eye.

Our harp was not at all an Irish harp. We had run the strings through the center of the neck, not down the side, to avoid the twisting tension that can destroy a small harp. We gave it rounded body, using the same beveled-stave structure as our mridangam drums and my neo-lutes. We used guitar strings and piano tuning pins, and I carved vaguely Helenic low-relief decorations on both ends of the body.

Photos of Moondog’s harp — and me — appeared in the papers. We got some orders for harps and got better at building them. And within a few years, Moondog’s prediction came true: The small harp made a big resurgence and harpers began appearing in cafes. Did Moondog have a role in this renaissance? Did Glenn and I?

I stopped making instruments when we had to move out of the farm. But several years later, living in Vermont and desperately broke as always, I built a couple of small harps on spec. They sold immediately. Soon I was producing one or two  a month and shipping  them throughout the U.S.

Several models of my  Halcyon Harps, from around 1985.

Several models of my Halcyon Harps, from around 1985.

Eventually I worked up to floor-standing, shoulder-high harps with as many as 40 strings and had my strings custom-made. Author Bill Lederer bought one and began hawking them to his far-flung contacts. I earned a big part of my living for 10 years building harps.

In the meantime, those newspaper articles helped me get paid jobs playing and teaching guitar. And, following Moondog’s advice, I produced my first album of guitar solos, Guitar, hand-carved with a hatchet into vinyl in a run-down record-mill on Chicago’s South Side. I drew the front jacket cover image myself and for the back cover my wife painted a portrait of our beloved farm house on Old Sauk Road.

The sound quality was that of a malfunctioning telephone answering machine, the compositions were barely Neanderthal, and the jacket graphics were as crisp and clear as a Xeroxed mimeograph.

In 2012, I had occasion to listen to the tunes for the first time in 35 years when Numero Records wanted me to select a cut from Guitar on a compilation album of theirs. It’s rude stuff, that oddball music written at the Yoga Farm and in my sister’s chicken coop up west of Green Bay. But Guitar led to other recordings and 15 years of performing throughout the U.S., Europe, and China.

Moondog moved on after about three weeks. We got letters from him once or twice, transcribed by some friend, but I never learned what became of that first harp.

He was an unassuming man, by no means as dramatic as his appearance. Yet one particular attribute of his character imparted a kind of kinetic force to my life. I ricocheted away into harp-making and a professional music career, and have Moondog to thank or blame.

Perhaps I did learn a “heavy” existential lesson from him, after all: The best thing you can do for other people is to show them the things you find beautiful and fascinating  and meaningful. There’s no question that “To truly know joy, you must give to others.” But the inverse is equally important: To truly give, you must know joy.


3 comments on “Moondog IV: Life Turns

  1. Andrea Freeman

    It seems I have Moondog to thank then, too, at least indirectly, for shaping my future.
    For when you came out west on one of your pilgrimages to San Francisco, you brought with you a small lap harp you’d made. When you played it, my spirit melted into the exquisite waterfall of music that poured from its resonant graceful body. I was in heaven. More than anything, I wanted to play such an instrument. Not long thereafter, I asked if you’d build me a harp and, by some miracle, managed to save enough money to afford the purchase.

    When the harp you built arrived, it was love at first sight. A dream that had seemed to good to come true, was now a reality. I had a harp! Incredible! Very soon thereafter, I chanced to meet a musician who played the Celtic harp who generously offered to show me the basics of how to play it and then my fate was sealed. Every free moment I had was spent practicing. It was a love affair that never faded and remains to this day.

    It bears mentioning that after a few years of playing this small harp, I wanted one with more strings and greater dynamic range. Fortunately, by this time you were building bigger, free-standing harps and kindly accepted my request to build me a full-grown harp.

    The harps you built, that I have had the pleasure of playing, are both works of art — the beauty of your workmanship coupled with the inate beauty of the maple and cherry wood from which the harps are fashioned, make them a joy to behold even when at rest, but when they’re played, their voices have never failed to brighten my spirit and the spirits of all who hear them.
    Do I thank Moondog for this? Perhaps a little. Mostly, I thank you, Daniel!

    And another thing…I remember that first album of guitar music you produced with the hand drawn artwork on the album cover. Far from it consisting of ‘Neanderthal’ compositions with the sound quality of an old answer machine, it was beautiful! I loved that album! I listened to it over and over again, it being a particular favorite to listen to while I was drawing and painting. Granted I only had an old ‘Neanderthal’ record player back then but your album sounded downright good on it. I thought of you as a virtuoso guitarist (which you are) and it brought me many hours of pleasure listening to your music. So, thank you for the beautiful recordings you’ve produced (inclusive of the first one) and the gorgeous harps you brought into the world. And, in particular, my world. My life was forever changed, for the better, as a result of your gifts. You’re a remarkable person. Glad to have met you!


      Andrea, thank you for your thoughtful (and flattering) comments! I should mention to other readers that I remember all of the people who acquired my harps, and particularly Andrea. She has released several albums of harp music and is also an illustrator and author, most recently of The Infinite Song. In the bringing of beautiful things into the world, it really does take two (or more) to tango. For example, Glenn and I had to already have loved instrument-building and music to be ready to accept the gift of Moondog’s enthusiasm and to “bounce” off of it in directions that we already wanted to go. So, since you never know when you’ll meet someone who’s ready to bounce you or be bounced by you, it’s best to simply express your enthusiasm (or love or fascination or wonder or whatever you might call it) in all the things you do.

  2. Mark Graham

    I have a 36-string oak harp of yours made in 1986. I’ve never become proficient, but I keep it strung and play it from time to time. I’ve shown it to professional harpists who have loved it, and I’ve never seen a more beautiful harp. If there was a fire, it’s about the only possession I’d go back in to get!

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