Top 10 Pigpen McKernan Grateful Dead Songs
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was part of the Grateful Dead before it was even called the Grateful Dead, and as this list demonstrates his departure — just before passing away in 1973 — changed the band forever.
A groove-focused keyboardist, volcanic harp player and bone-deep lover of the blues, Pigpen’s presence had a grounding effect on the group known for its lysergic flights of musical fancy. His heartfelt interpretations often shed new light on old favorites, even as a group of like-minded musicians coalesced around Jerry Garcia in 1964-65 and then as the Grateful Dead went on to wide fame in the early ’70s.
By 1972, however, Pigpen had bowed out of the band, diagnosed with congenital biliary cirrhosis. He would be found dead in his home the next year after suffering a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. But not before leaving us with these 10 Pigpen McKernan Grateful Dead classics.
‘Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)’
Pigpen’s penchant for old blues tracks perhaps inevitably led him to this chugging Lightnin’ Hopkins tune — which goes all the way back to a pre-Dead configuration in 1964 called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The Grateful Dead, as they came to be called in 1965 after Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann joined, would make ‘Ain’t It Crazy’ a concert staple in 1970-71. This take comes from a April ’71 concert at New York City’s Fillmore East.
Call it a moment-in-time nod to the prevailing psychedelic winds, as ‘Alligator’ starts out all bluesy and in the pocket, and then the Grateful Dead unleashes a kazoo. Yes, a kazoo. Still, the track (even with the wow-man flourishes) retains a shotgun-shack rattling sense of groove. ‘Alligator’ also marked Robert Hunter’s first songwriting credit with the Dead.
‘Big Boss Man’
Pigpen adds a gruff melancholy to this classic Jimmy Reed cover, as part of the Dead’s second double-live album — and second eponymously titled project. Then he switches over to a gnarly harp to give things another layer of greasy goodness.
Bob Weir revived this track in the ’80s and ’90s, but it originally served as a rambling excursion for Pigpen, best heard on this February 8, 1970 night at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Where Howlin’ Wolf once approached ‘Smokestack Lightning’ with a braying bravado, Pigpen — and his ruminative band of confederates in the Dead — let the song unspool into a somnolent gait … then stuck with it for more than 14 glorious minutes.
‘Hurts Me Too’
This song retains an indelible connection to Pigpen, after the Grateful Dead regularly performed it from 1966-72 — and then never again after his death. First recorded in a slightly different form by Tampa Red, ‘Hurts Me Too’ first came to wide fame via an Elmore James version from 1957. Pigpen’s trembling take seems to owe just as much to Junior Wells’ electrifying update, which followed in 1962.
A rollicking collaboration between Pigpen and Hunter, ‘Mr. Charlie’ arrived courtesy of the final tour before McKernan became too ill to continue with the band. It was recorded during a May 23, 1972 date at London’s Lyceum Theatre, and released in November of the same year as part of a triple-album concert package. Pigpen died on March 8, 1973, at just 27.
‘Hard to Handle’
‘Hard to Handle’ was a coiled highlight from the Dead’s Fillmore East shows on February 13 and 14, 1970, and then a cornerstone of this 1973 album constructed after Pigpen’s death. Careful listeners will recognize it, too, as the connective moment between Otis Redding’s original and the Black Crowes’ subsequent version.
‘Good Morning Little School Girl’
A crossover song that originally bridged the country- and city-blues epochs, this Sonny Boy Williamson composition would no doubt be considered far to risque for wide release these days. That said, Pigpen — singing ‘Good Morning’ for the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut — gives the vocal a deliciously, unforgettably lecherous feel.
There’s a hard-working, hard-drinking feel to ‘Easy Wind,’ in keeping with the 1970 project’s title — and Pigpen’s shaggy-haired So Co-swilling persona. He gives a melancholy ache to the lyric on this Hunter-penned original, which finds our protagonist looking for a woman who “won’t hide my liquor, try to serve me tea.”
‘Turn On Your Love Light’
Pigpen and the Grateful Dead got the closest that anyone ever did to swiping ‘Turn on Your Love Light’ from its best-known interpreter, Bobby “Blue” Bland. And they did it by pushing and pulling on this song until it became something else entirely. Their version on ‘Live/Dead,’ the first of countless concert recordings for the band, was 15 minutes long. The one at Woodstock reportedly lasted more like 45 minutes.