Random Canyon (Peter Stampfel/Dave Van Ronk)

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 that he might get a hit that would break him beyond the bar and coffeehouse circuit and make life a little easier (for more on this, check out my post on “The Gambler“). His likeliest brass rings were the songs being written by friends like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, or maybe his interpretations of 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 considered Peter a genius — the specific quote was “He is undoubtedly some kind of genius, though so far no one has determined what kind” — and stampfelalthough 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).

Dave 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: as he hit that final note, he broke the D string on his guitar, and he didn’t have a spare. 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 street songs from his Brooklyn childhood… it was one of the most varied and fascinating performances I’ve ever seen.sagrada familia

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 Cathedral of la Sagrada Familia is to a clapboard country church.