Dave Van Ronk always took pride in the fact that, having started on the folk scene as part of the traditionalist wing (which he dubbed the “neo-ethnics”), he became at least equally known for his interpretations of material by the new wave of songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. For a while in the latter half of that decade he had some major label money behind him, and hopes of getting hits and breaking out of the coffeehouse scene, and his prospective tickets were interpretations of songs by friends like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, or Bertolt Brecht, or Jacques Brel, or Randy Newman, or… Peter Stampfel.
Dave was an early and avid supporter of Mitchell, but it is rarely noted that the album on which he first recorded one of her songs also had a Stampfel song, and his most solidly singer-songwriter album of the 1960s had two Stampfel songs. He thought Peter a transcendent genius, and although this rococo Roy-Rogers-on-mescaline cowboy song was the only item of Stampfeliana that remained in his repertoire in later years, that was because the others required more accompaniment than his guitar — for example, the avant-garde art-rock cacophony of “Romping Through the Swamp” (the link is to a live recording with the Hudson Dusters, even weirder than the LP version). He kept singing “Random Canyon” throughout his career, often as a concert closer — the obvious place for it, since it rose to a raucous, howling finale, ending with a shouted, sustained note that was so perfectly, magnificently, painfully off-pitch that it was a work of art and invariably left the crowd pleading for an encore.
The only time I heard Dave sing this near the beginning of a set, it was a disaster and one of the greatest shows I ever heard him do, because as he hit that final note, he broke the D string on his guitar, and he didn’t have a spare. It was second set, the stores were closed, the opening act had gone home, so he had no choice but to do the rest of the concert a cappella. He sang blues, he sang Brecht, he sang children’s songs from his Brooklyn youth… it was one of the most varied and fascinating performances I’ve ever seen.
As for me, I learned “Random Canyon” because how could anyone hear this lyric and not want to learn it?
It is to ordinary cowboy songs what Antoni Gaudí’s Catedral de la Sagrada Familia is to a clapboard country church.