When I first met the Grateful Dead, it was Pigpen and the boys.

March 9, 2016

“Pigpen was the musician in the Grateful Dead. When I first met the Grateful Dead, it was Pigpen and the boys. It was a blues band… Pigpen was a kind man. He looked so hard, but he was a kind, soft man. That’s why he had to look so tough, because he was so kind, he would get stepped on…"

~Mickey Hart

Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan was born on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, California. His contributions to the Dead included vocals, keyboards, harmonica, percussion, and guitar. The son of a Bay Area R&B and blues disc jockey, McKernan grew up in a predominantly black area and found a bond with the black music and culture. McKernan began hanging around coffeehouses and music stores where he eventually met Jerry Garcia. One night Garcia had McKernan hop on-stage and play his harmonica and sing the blues. Garcia was sold: He knew he wanted the man he now called Pig Pen to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions. 


Pig Pen was a participant in all incarnations of the Dead, beginning with the Zodiacs and then Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Bob Weir and Bob Matthews were added to the mix and evolved into the Warlocks. In fact, around 1965, it was Pig Pen who was urging the rest of the Warlocks to go electric around the time Phil Lesh would join and they became the Grateful Dead. 


Read the original article here


In celebration of his life and music enjoy this best of Pigpen playlist originally posted here:


‘Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)’

From: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen… the Grateful Dead’ (2000)


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. Listen To ‘Ain’t It Crazy’



‘Big Boss Man’

From: ‘The Grateful Dead’ (1971)


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. Listen To ‘Big Boss Man’



‘Smokestack Lightning’

From: ‘History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One’ (1973)


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. Listen To ‘Smokestack Lightning’



‘Hurts Me Too’

From: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen… the Grateful Dead’ (2000)


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. Listen To ‘Hurts Me Too’



‘Mr. Charlie’

From: ‘Europe ’72’ (1973)


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. Listen To ‘Mr. Charlie’



‘Hard to Handle’

From: ‘History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One’ (1973)


‘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. Listen To ‘Hard to Handle’



‘Good Morning Little School Girl’

From: ‘The Grateful Dead’ (1967)


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. Listen To ‘Good Morning Little School Girl’



'Easy Wind'

From: ‘Workingman’s Dead’ (1970)


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.” Listen To ‘Easy Wind’



‘Turn On Your Love Light’

From: ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)


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. Listen To ‘Turn on Your Love Light’