Remembering Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan: April 1970 Acoustic Solo Set
Listen to the Grateful Dead co-founder perform solo acoustic at San Francisco's Great Highway in 1970.
Grateful Dead co-founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan sadly died on this date in 1973 from complications due to alcohol. Born Ronald Charles McKernan on September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, California, Pigpen’s father Phil McKernan was a DJ for Bay Area radio station KDIA. As such, Ron was exposed to blues and R&B at an early age and developed an affinity for the gernes. Pigpen subsequently taught himself how to play piano and harmonica. He also amassed a substantial record collection from legendary blues and R&B labels like Chess and Kent.
Possessing a deep understanding of the blues, Ron began hanging around coffee houses and started working at Dana Morgan’s Music Store in Palo Alto at age 14 where he met Jerry Garcia. Impressed by McKernan’s bluesy voice and harmonica playing, Garcia and Pigpen began jamming together at local spots and a group that would become known as the Grateful Dead began to form via various monikers with co-founding members guitarist Bob Weir, drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh joining in.
In 1965 folk music was the rage and the band played acoustic instruments. But it was Pigpen who suggested they switch up to electric instruments and the Grateful Dead became something of a blues and R&B band with Pigpen, who possessed the best voice, at the helm. Ron’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genres also gained him the role of the de facto musical director and he selected a number of R&B numbers for the group to cover. But the band began participating in the Acid Tests led by Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and began to shift to a more exploratory psychedelic sound.
As the Grateful Dead gained prominence as a psychedelic rock band in the late 1960s and Garcia, Weir and Lesh stepped into singing roles, Pigpen sang less but was still regarded as the band’s frontman and would come out from behind the B3 organ for songs like Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour,” Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle,” The Rascals “Good Lovin'” and his signature song, Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” which saw McKernan going on improvised raps and engaging the audience as frontman.
But in 1970 Pigpen offered some lucky fans the ultimate “frontman” experience when he delivered six songs in a solo acoustic guitar format. The performance came at the tail end of a “stealth” show by members of the Grateful Dead which took place on April 18, 1970 and was billed under various names including “Mickey Hart and His Heartbeats” and “Bobby Ace and His Cards from the Bottom of the Deck.” The show would be released in 2013 as Family Dog at the Great Highway, San Francisco, CA 4/18/70 after Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia unearthed the original tapes from the intimate concert.
The show — which saw New Riders Of The Purple Sage’s John Dawson and David Nelson joining members of the Dead at various points — begins with full-band performances of Dead classics like “Friend Of The Devil,” “Cumberland Blues,” “New Speedway Boogie” and more although those songs were all fairly new at the time. The concert also contains rare covers including the Dick Reynolds and Jack Rhodes-penned “Silver Threads And Golden Needles.” But after Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” the recording features Pigpen playing a number of songs by Texas blues singer-songwriter Lightnin’ Hopkins including “Katie Mae,” “Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub),” “Bring Me My Shotgun” and closer “Black Snake.” The acoustic set also sees Pigpen digging into his extensive knowledge of the blues with his own arrangements of blues standards such as “Roberta” and “The Mighty Flood.” The set sees Ron channeling his blues heroes of old with just his soulful voice and guitar.
To remember, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, listen to the Grateful Dead co-founding member perform solo acoustic below:
Set: Don’t Ease Me In, Silver Threads And Golden Needles, Friend Of The Devil, Deep Elem Blues, Wake Up Little Susie, Candyman > Cumberland Blues, New Speedway Boogie, Me And My Uncle, Mama Tried, Katie Mae*, Ain’t It Crazy (The Rub)*, Roberta*, Walk Down The Street*, The Mighty Flood*, Black Snake*
*Ron “Pigpen” McKernan solo acoustic
[Originally published March 8, 2021.]