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Music

The only self-penned Pigpen track on a Grateful Dead album

@TylerGolsen

Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was a lot of things: first and foremost a founding member of the Grateful Dead, Pigpen was also a blues scholar and a highly entertaining frontman to boot. With his rave-up versions of ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ and ‘Good Lovin’, Pigpen got crowds moving as he rasped out improvised vocal lines that fit right in with his bandmates’ jams. One thing that Pigpen was not, however, was a prolific songwriter.

That doesn’t mean his name doesn’t appear on any Dead credits – Pigpen is a co-writer for one of the band’s grandest jams, ‘The Other One’, and helped contribute music to his early showstoppers ‘Alligator’ and ‘Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks)’. Pigpen’s songwriting fluctuated throughout the band’s career: although he didn’t contribute anything to Aoxomoxoa, he hit a notable spurt during the Europe ’72 trek and produced quite a few new tracks before his untimely death cut his creative streak short.

Usually, when Pigpen’s name ended up in songwriting credits, it was as a music writer. None of the Dead were particularly gifted lyricists, and once Jerry Garcia brought in his old friend Robert Hunter to the fold to write lyrics, there was no real need for any of the members to write their own words. But Pigpen did so anyway and continued writing his own songs right up until his very last days in the Dead.

On the Europe ’72 tour, Pigpen had three new originals he was trotting out: the Hunter co-write ‘Mr. Charlie’ and two self-written tunes, ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ and ‘The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)’. Perhaps due to the isolation he was feeling at the time, Pigpen opted not to bother Hunter with the lyrics of the latter two, penning them himself in a burst of creativity. Up to that point, Pigpen only had a single solo songwriting credit in the band’s entire history – ‘Operator’, from 1970’s American Beauty.

A jaunty country song following a hopeless attempt to reconnect with a lost love, ‘Operator’ found Pigpen working right inside of his well-defined wheelhouse. Although it doesn’t have the shotgun imagery that would become a signature of his, ‘Operator’ is almost certainly a song that couldn’t have been sung by any of his other bandmates.

When it found its way onto American Beauty, ‘Operator’ wound up being the only solo Pigpen songwriting credit on a Grateful Dead studio album. ‘Chinatown Shuffle’ and ‘The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion)’ weren’t even included in the first edition of Europe ’72, giving Pigpen just a single solo songwriting credit for a number of years until the complete Europe ’72 recordings were released.