The diverse interests in the Grateful Dead meant that they were able to play a whole host of different styles. Jerry Garcia’s roots were in bluegrass, while Bob Weir’s were in folk. Bill Kreutzmann was an R&B drummer, while Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was a blues purist. Phil Lesh had studied classical avant-garde, while Mickey Hart had trained in marching bands and looked to integrate rhythms from around the world.
But when they got down to it, the Dead were a rock and roll band. Inspired by The Beatles, the band cast aside their acoustic jug band leanings and plugged in, going for fuzzy garage rock and psychedelic sonic experiences that epitomized the ‘Primal Dead’ era. By 1970, the acoustic instruments had returned, but the band’s rock and roll roots never went away.
If you went to enough Dead concerts, you’d be sure to eventually hear a Chuck Berry cover. Tracks like ‘Around and Around’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, and ‘The Promised Land’ had permanent spots in the Dead’s ever-evolving rotation of songs, and the group got so good at Berry’s singular take on rock that they decided to write their own song in his style: ‘One More Saturday Night’. The Dead were also known, on the intermittent festive occasion in 1971, to bust out one of Berry’s classic Christmas songs, ‘Run Rudolph Run’.
Although Bob Weir was nominally the Chuck Berry singer in the band, ‘Run Rudolph Run’ was actually helmed by Pigpen. It was only played in ’71 and in total less than ten times. Hearing Pigpen take on a song that would clearly normally be taken by Weir is a fascinating role reversal, and foreshadowed Weir’s take over of some of Pigpen’s own signature tunes after the latter’s death in 1974.
Pigpen’s rough and ready vocal is charmingly ragged, especially for a Christmas song. Although he garnered a tough and taciturn cowboy biker image over the years, Pigpen was known to have a goofy and fun side to him as well. If nothing else, ‘Run Rudolph Run’ shows Pigpen at his most endearing, belting out the track with enough yuletide cheer to make even the most miserly of Scrooges feel festive.
Check out the Grateful Dead’s version of ‘Run Rudolph Run’ down below.