Ron "Pigpen" McKernan

Missing image
"Pigpen" on the cover of Bring Me My Shotgun

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (September 8, 1945 - March 8, 1973) was a musician and member of the Grateful Dead. His contributions to the Grateful Dead included vocals, keyboards, harmonica, percussion, and guitar.

He was born in San Bruno, California to a San Francisco Bay Area R&B and blues disc jockey. McKernan grew up with many black friends and found a bond with the black music and culture. As a youth, McKernan began figuring out blues piano and developed a biker image that was to lead to the eventual cessation of his school career. In his early teens, McKernan left Palo Alto High school by mutual agreement with the school Principal. He developed a strong affinity for alcohol.

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 Pigpen to be the blues singer in all the local jam sessions.It is thought as common knowledge that Jerry gave Ron McKernan his nickname of "Pigpen," but it was actually a high school buddy named Roger who gave him the nickname.

Pigpen 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 Pigpen who was urging the rest of the Warlocks to go electric around the time Phil Lesh would join and they became the Grateful Dead.

Pigpen was the high-energy bluesman. He played blues organ as well as harmonica and vocals. Pigpen had an incredible ability to rant improvised lyrics incessantly. While his buddies were experimenting with LSD, Pigpen stuck to his old favorites, Thunderbird wine and Southern Comfort. And Pigpen added more and more signature tunes to the Dead's repertoire, including some that lasted throughout their whole career such as "Turn on Your Lovelight" and "In the Midnight Hour".

In 1967 and 1968, Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten, respectively, were added into the band, causing it to take a drastic turn from the blues towards psychedelia. Pigpen's keyboard position was taken over by Constanten who would occupy that seat until 1970, but Pigpen stuck with the band, always bringing the shows to a climax with his intense audience-interactive raps.

At a time when these raps were really becoming great, Pigpen's liver began having trouble keeping up with his drinking. Pigpen no longer played much, but was always present to get the crowd riled. By 1971, the Dead were rehearsing with Keith Godchaux on keyboards and Pigpen vowed to quit drinking so he could still be a part of the band. He did stop drinking at this time.

After their "Europe '72" tour, Pigpen's health had degenerated to the point that he could no longer tour with the Dead. On March 8, 1973, Pigpen was found dead at age 27 of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. He was off the booze, but it was too late.

On his grave, the marker reads:


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