Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan started The Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia might have become their de facto leader in everything but name, but without Pigpen’s insistence on creating a group, the world’s most beloved jam band would not exist. Pigpen and Garcia were teenage friends, back when McKernan was still known as ‘Blue Ron’ due to his devotion to the sounds of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta. His love of black music, whether it be blues, soul, R&B, or funk, never wavered in his lifetime.
McKernan was at the forefront of the band’s initial evolution. He was the frontman and harmonica player, the most essential role for an upstart jug band. Pigpen saw the limitations of an acoustic setup and suggested that the group should go electric. He connected with the burgeoning garage rock scene and bought a Vox Continental plastic organ to blast the band into their psychedelic future. That would turn out to be ironic as Pigpen was averse to hallucinogenic drugs, and when the rest of the group started to embrace the outer reaches of the psychedelic sound and lifestyle, he had a hard time keeping up as they strayed further and further away from his music of choice.
Even as they progressed beyond his skillset, Pigpen was an essential member until his very last days. While his live numbers dwindled as Garcia and Bob Weir began to assert themselves as singers and writers, songs like ‘Good Lovin’, ‘Hard to Handle’ and ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ were still showstoppers, with Pigpen working the crowd in ways that no other band member could. He even got a few originals like ‘Mr. Charlie’ and ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ in the mix by the time the band hit Europe in 1972, but his hard-drinking and poor health began to take their toll.
Once a robust and paunchy young man during the band’s mid-1960s hippie heyday, Pigpen was rail-thin by the 1970s and largely became sullen and withdrawn. Even during his lowest moments, he was still a kind and gentle soul whose generous nature contrasted his hardened cowboy persona. The rest of the band were OK with Pigpen’s limitations because he was still an essential ingredient to the musical stew that was The Grateful Dead. He was their anchor, even as he was seemingly floating away.
Upon his death in 1973, the first era of The Grateful Dead’s history officially came to a close. For years, the band turned their back on blues, R&B, and party tunes due in no small part to his notable absence. No one could whip the crowd into a frenzy like Pigpen could, and the band lost a significant amount of their primitive edge once Pigpen shuffled off the mortal coil. To celebrate his birthday, we’ve collected some of the most essential Grateful Dead tracks that Pigpen spearheaded and one that became a stirring tribute to him in later years. These are Pigpen’s twelve greatest songs.
Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan’s 12 greatest songs:
Pigpen’s first job within The Dead was to act as frontman for their blues covers. In the beginning, that’s all the band had, and most of their repertoire was handpicked by McKernan based on his personal tastes.
‘Smokestack Lightning’, the classic Howlin’ Wolf track, is almost impossible to perform: it has a single chord, and it relies solely on the gravity of the lead singer who takes it on. Pigpen had gravity in spades, and even though he was in his early 20s when he and the band first played it, he brought a lifetime of experience to their performances of ‘Smokestack Lightning’.
It was no secret that Pigpen had a hard time keeping up with the psychedelic sound that was quickly becoming the band’s signature in the late ’60s. With little room for the garage rock originals or blues covers he preferred, aided by his dislike of LSD and marijuana, Pigpen began a slow estrangement from his bandmates.
However, their styles briefly overlapped in beautiful synthesis, as is the case on ‘Alligator’. Pigpen gets to groove with a R&B strut, and the band get to explore the sonic territories of drum solos and psychedelic rock. It wasn’t a balance that was meant to last, but it’s profound to hear it in action.
‘In the Midnight Hour’
As the members of the Grateful Dead began to gel as musicians, group improvisation became an essential part of their chemistry. Propelled by Phil Lesh’s interests in jazz and Jerry Garcia’s expansive guitar work, the trick was finding the right vehicle with which the band could go off on whatever musical tangent they desired.
Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour’ turned out to be one of the band’s earliest exploratory songs, often stretched out to ten minutes or longer. Much is made of Pigpen’s inability to adapt with the band, but his soul covers continued to resonate and excite throughout his entire tenure.
‘Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks)’
There’s a certain irony to the fact that Pigpen’s biggest showcase was on the band’s most “out there” psychedelic album: Anthem of the Sun. The two songs that make up the back half are Pigpen tunes, the aforementioned ‘Alligator’ and ‘Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks)’. Talking of gypsy women and the touch of the mojo hand, Pigpen was well within his element communicating words that would have sounded ridiculous coming from anyone else.
The songs went over so well live that the band kept getting requests for them even after Pigpen had left and eventually died. The band often feigned ignorance, claiming to have forgotten the songs, but the truth was that there was no resurrecting Pigpen’s songs without also resurrecting Pigpen.
‘It Hurts Me Too’
Nobody did pained pleading like Pigpen. The band’s other singers excelled at country tunes, rockers, and psychedelic songs, but when it came to bluesy heartbreak, Pigpen just hit the right notes to give the songs the proper believability.
The real life demons that Pigpen struggled with were given an outlet when he plugged into Elmore James track ‘It Hurts Me Too’, and although it became less prominent towards the end of his tenure, his harmonica playing here still has the ability to cut deep into your soul.
When Robert Hunter was brought into the Grateful Dead camp, he became the in-house lyricist for all of the band members with their originals. Hunter had the unique ability to tailor his writing style to each member’s strengths, and for Pigpen, that meant bluesy tales of shotguns and wine.
‘Mr. Charlie’ is a romp if there ever was one, complete with some goofy call and response vocals from the other members. Perhaps Pigpen’s best original, no song better encapsulates the magnetism and might of Pigpen than ‘Mr. Charlie’.
‘Big Boss Man’
When he passed away, Pigpen’s songs were rarely touched by the Dead. Partly out of respect for their deceased friend, the band also realised that Pigpen’s tunes required quite a bit of charisma to pull off. Weir’s revivals of ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ and ‘Good Lovin’ were adequate but lacked the spark that came with Pigpen’s original performances.
‘Big Boss Man’ worked a little bit better because of the goofiness that both men could bring to their vocal takes. Pigpen obviously had more grit, but you could also see him flash a wry smile as he delivered the kicker: “Well, you ain’t so big, you’re just tall, that’s all.”
Pigpen could plead with heartbreaking honesty, but he wasn’t above a bit of comedy as well. The lighter side of Pig was well known to those around him, but to those who only saw him on stage or in pictures, he seemed like a whiskey-soaked villain straight out of a cartoon.
‘Operator’ allows Pigpen to play around with less weighty sounds. Once again playing into the slightly goofier side of Pigpen’s personality, ‘Operator’ still lets him talk of riders and Midnight Flyers as he begs the titular figure to help him find his baby. It would be his single solo songwriting credit in the band’s history.
‘Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)’
The Dead’s roots as a jug band can seem ludicrous when compared to the styles that eventually made them: psychedelic rock and jam band music. But there was an intrinsically folky heart to the band’s sound, and one of the first songs they ever attempted as a group was the Lightnin’ Hopkins song ‘Ain’t It Crazy’, known to the band as ‘The Rub’.
Once again keying into the looser and more playful side of Pigpen, ‘The Rub’ is worthy of inclusion just to hear Pigpen slur out the words “rub a dub dub”.
There are a large number of Grateful Dead songs that never got properly recorded for a studio album. The Dead weren’t much of a studio band anyway, and most of their material became constricted within the confines of a recording session.
Still, it’s a shame that ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ never got a studio recording, nor did it appear on Europe ’72, despite getting played frequently on that tour. ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ is a bit of a hidden gem from Pigpen, but it shows that he was still ramping up even as his days within the band were numbered.
Pigpen and Robert Hunter shared an affinity for a sort of long-forgotten America. The Wild West, old school ramshackle towns, horses, shotgun-toting cowboys, and saloons were right within both men’s wheelhouses. If you had to imagine one member of the Dead wielding a jackhammer and working on a chain gang, the obvious choice was Pigpen.
Despite his softened interior, Pigpen played the part of the rough and tumble biker, followed swiftly by the dangerous cowboy. ‘Easy Wind’ lets him play right into his anti-authoritarian persona, and the use of signature Pig terms like “rider” and “stone jack baller” prove Hunter’s expertise in writing perfectly for his subjects.
‘Turn On Your Love Light’
Pigpen’s tour de force. As the Dead became more and more comfortable with original material, and the Garcia/Weir tandem became more comfortable as vocalists, room for Pigpen became more and more scarce.
But there was always room for Pig to light up a crowd with his rendition of ‘Turn On Your Love Light’, the Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland song that would forever be associated with Pigpen’s impromptu raps and improvisations. A bluesman at his very core, Pigpen electrified audiences and got them to dance, sing, and groove like no one else.
Bonus: ‘He’s Gone’
‘He’s Gone’ wasn’t written about Pigpen. It was a recitation of the swindling that band manager Lenny Hart, father of drummer Mickey Hart, pulled over on the Dead when he absconded with a significant chunk of their income.
Pigpen was still in the band when the band first started performing it, but once he passed, the lyrics started to be applied to him as a tribute to their fallen brother. Death would always surround the Grateful Dead, but Pigpen’s passing was the first and arguably the most significant. The band survived, but they became a different band without him. Still, as was probably his want, there’s nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.