Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan has his own sub-cult within the already-fully-fledged cult of the Grateful Dead. As the band’s original frontman and leader, Pigpen was essential in turning the Dead from a jug band to a real-deal electric rock and roll outfit. Ironically, it was this evolution away from more traditional material that ultimately put Pigpen on the outside of the Dead’s world.
Pigpen was an enigma. He dressed and sang like a dangerous cat, but in person was known to be gentle and caring. He wanted to play electric, but kept a fondness for acoustic blues. He was in the one band that best exemplified the psychedelic experience, but he himself was averse to psychedelic drugs. He was largely replaced on his instrument of choice by the likes of Tom Constanten in the late 1960s, but he retained a close bond with the man who took over his job. He was a man who favoured covers, and yet he also continued to hone his songwriting craft until the very final days of his existence within the Dead.
When the Grateful Dead began incorporating an acoustic set into their shows in 1970, it gave Pigpen the ability to revisit some of his favourite old-school blues tunes like ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Katie Mae’. It was during a performance of the latter on February 13th, 1970 at the Fillmore East that Pigpen did something that he never did before or after with the Dead – he played the guitar on stage.
The instrument that Pigpen was mostly known for was keyboards, with the acoustic shows during this era providing a rare glimpse into Pigpen’s skills on the acoustic piano. He mostly played organs, first a Vox and then a Hammond B-3, and blew on the harmonica, but Pigpen was also an accomplished acoustic guitarist in the style of his favoured genre: the blues.
According to band manager Rock Skully during a 1973 interview, Pigpen’s impromptu guitar performance on stage surprised his bandmates and inspired them to do the same. “Pigpen went out on the stage and sat down in a chair … it was the only time he ever did it,” Skully claimed. “He sat down and played the bottleneck guitar. We’d been pushing him for years to do it and finally he just got loose enough and comfortable enough with the audience there at the Fillmore to go out and do it.”
“He went out and sat down on the stage—it was Valentine’s Day and he had a honey out in the crowd. He went out and played ‘Katie Mae’ to her,” Skully observed. “Immediately following that, Bobby (Weir) and Garcia went out and did the same thing. They sat down and played acoustic guitars. They don’t do that anymore.”
In fact, the Dead would revive their acoustic sets again in 1980, this time with Brent Mydland as their keyboardist. Pigpen’s version of ‘Katie Mae’ even made it onto an official Grateful Dead release – 1973’s History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice). Assembled by sound man Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley, the live LP transformed into a quasi-tribute to Pigpen when the singer died during the album’s production. Three of the seven songs on the collection were sung by Pigpen, including the version of ‘Katie Mae’ that Pigpen sang the night before Valentine’s Day at the Fillmore East.
Check out the rare performance of Pigpen playing the guitar down below.