March 1, 2019

The Unexpected Pigpen

Pigpen was the organ player and primary blues singer in the early Grateful Dead. He almost exclusively sang blues songs within the Dead and wasn't keen on extended complex improvisations, so despite being the “star” of the band in those years, his contribution to the others’ songs was limited to backing keyboard parts. His blues pieces were a distinct part of the band’s shows, but when he wasn’t singing, he would generally be behind the organ or the congas, or would simply vanish for a while, until it was time for him to sing again. So aside from his organ parts, it’s rare to find Pigpen showing up in someone else’s song. I thought I’d make a short list of the occasions when Pigpen would pop up unexpectedly and play something unusual in songs he normally didn’t appear in.

This list is a work in progress. I’m sure I’ve overlooked other examples, so please add to the list if I’ve missed a rare Pigpen appearance!

Pigpen’s harmonica was an important part of the mix when the Dead started out; in fact it’s the lead instrument on two of the original songs in their first studio demo in 1965, Can’t Come Down and Caution:
1966 probably featured the most harmonica playing in the Dead’s shows, not only in Pigpen’s blues songs, but also in the jugband tunes they carried over from Mother McCree’s like On the Road Again, Overseas Stomp and Big Railroad Blues, as well as their Stones covers such as Not Fade Away and Empty Heart. By 1967 this was winnowed down to just Pigpen’s featured blues spots, and his harmonica playing was segregated from the rest of the Dead’s repertoire.
It’s A Sin was the only Garcia-sung blues song that Pigpen always accompanied with harmonica, in its rare appearances from 1966 to 1970.

When the Dead started rehearsing Viola Lee Blues in January 1966, there was a chance that harmonica would become part of the song:
The first few attempts feature Pigpen singing along with Garcia, and adding some harmonica. But he soon leaves the rehearsal, and the Dead switch the vocal arrangement. Pigpen would be confined to organ for the rest of Viola Lee’s days.

Pigpen was also a solid blues piano player, but the only time the Dead put him on piano in the ‘60s was in the two studio versions of his song Tastebud, from June 1966 and January 1967:
June '66 -
An instrumental Tastebud outtake from the Scorpio sessions:
As it turned out, the song wasn’t released, and I’m not sure if Pigpen ever touched a piano in the studio again. The Dead simply didn’t need any blues-style piano on their albums, and at the time didn't use a piano in live shows.

(Pigpen did help out Tom Constanten on organ one time in the studio, though, when recording New Potato Caboose. Constanten recalled, “There's one organ segment where Pigpen and I sat side by side to play it, because there were so many notes. As it turned out, it was too impractical to perform live.”)

Pigpen wasn’t involved with recording Aoxomoxoa at all, but made surprise appearances on a couple early live performances of songs from the album:
1/24/69 Dupree’s Diamond Blues (harmonica)
2/15/69 Cosmic Charlie (harmonica)
Pigpen sits in on the debut of Dupree’s, probably feeling at home in any kind of blues song, but the Dead decided not to use him again. His harmonica in Cosmic Charlie is more random, and was also not to be repeated.
(Pigpen could sometimes sing on We Bid You Goodnight in shows around this time as well – for instance he pops up in 12/21/68 – but I haven’t looked for other examples.) 

9/6/69 Not Fade Away (harmonica)
12/21/69 Not Fade Away (harmonica) 
12/29/69 Not Fade Away (harmonica) 
When Not Fade Away was revived at the end of '69, Pigpen played harmonica much as he had back in 1966...for the first few performances. He plays all through it on 9/6 and 12/21, less on 12/29, and not at all on 12/31; when it returned in 1970, Pigpen would stick to the organ. 

Although Pigpen's own songs aren't part of this list, I'd be remiss not to mention the acoustic shows at the Family Dog in April 1970. Pigpen seems not to have appeared at the first show on 4/17, but on the 18th, he ended the show with a mini-solo set of six acoustic blues songs in a row, an unheard-of event at a Dead show. (He apparently also played a similar set of five songs the following night.) But Pigpen fans wouldn't get to see him stretch out in the later acoustic sets, where he'd only sing a song or two - that is, when the Dead could get him to sing anything at all. (7/11/70 was the only time on tour when Pigpen broke out several songs in an acoustic set.)

5/2/70 Don't Ease Me In (harmonica) 
5/14/70 Don't Ease Me In (harmonica) 
On occasion, Pigpen would add harmonica to this old tune. 
I might mention that in the 5/15/70 early acoustic set, Pigpen plays organ in Don't Ease Me In, Long Black Limousine, and New Speedway Boogie - this seems unusual for an acoustic set. (Generally he'd just play organ on Black Peter in the acoustic sets.) The organ is particularly notable in New Speedway; Pigpen seems to have liked playing this song.

6/13/70 New Speedway Boogie (piano)
It was rare at the time for the Dead to have a piano on-stage (it was probably Quicksilver’s piano), but Pigpen hops on during this song.

6/24/70 Big Railroad Blues, Deep Elem Blues (harmonica)
To open the amazing late show, this is the only time Pigpen and Garcia came out to start an acoustic set together, with a pair of blues. This was possibly the first Big Railroad Blues they’d played since 1966, and it recalls the old version; by the next taped performance on 9/20, the Dead would change the arrangement. Pigpen sticks around on harmonica for a unique Deep Elem.

7/4/70 Don’t Ease Me In, New Speedway Boogie (harmonica)
Another show where Pigpen was evidently in a harp-playin’ mood; as usual, he adds an extra blues feel to these songs.

There are also a couple 1970 sets where Will Scarlett adds harmonica: the 5/3/70 acoustic set (Deep Elem, Friend of the Devil, Silver Threads, and Black Peter), and several songs on 11/16/70 (Big Railroad Blues, Truckin’>The Other One, and Uncle John’s Band). His bluesy style is not much different from Pigpen’s.

In the summer of 1970, Pigpen played piano in several of the Dead’s acoustic sets:
8-18-70 Truckin’, Ripple, New Speedway Boogie
8-19-70 How Long Blues, Dark Hollow, Candyman, Ripple, Truckin’, New Speedway Boogie
9-17-70 Truckin’, Brokedown Palace  
9-18-70 Truckin’
9-20-70 Deep Elem Blues, Big Railroad Blues, Truckin’, Brokedown Palace (and organ on To Lay Me Down)

Since Pigpen didn’t play any piano on American Beauty, this is a chance to hear what he sounded like on these songs. His piano parts in these songs are simple and add a rather rustic barrelhouse feel to the music. (But only the last couple sets are in SBD quality, and the piano is hard to hear in the early part of the 9/20 acoustic set.) It’s notable that Truckin’ is the only song Pigpen consistently played on in August and September ‘70. He played on Ripple in August, but in September switched to Brokedown Palace (presumably the change is due to the recording of American Beauty in the interim); and in September he stopped playing in New Speedway Boogie.
(Pigpen doesn't play piano in Box of Rain on 9/17; instead they duplicated the album arrangement on this live version, with Garcia on piano. Garcia recalled, "We were able to do 'Box of Rain' with the original instrumentation on the record. Me playing piano, Dave Nelson playing guitar." Show attendee Gary Lambert recalled, "Not only was "Box" performed, but it was especially memorable because it was played in a way that was...unique in the Dead's live history - by the same personnel playing the same instruments as they did on "American Beauty"...Phil on acoustic guitar; David Nelson on electric guitar; Dave Torbert on bass; Bobby singing harmony sans instrument; and Jerry on piano.")

After these sets, the Dead decided not to use a piano in their shows again until Keith Godchaux joined (other than a couple sit-ins by Ned Lagin on electric piano).
One exception is the 6/21/71 show on the lawn of a French chateau, where Pigpen manned an electric piano since the Dead didn't have an organ at the site. This gives a strikingly different sound to the handful of songs he plays on (Bertha and the Other One in particular).  

1/21/71 Truckin’ (harmonica)
Truckin’ comes out of Smokestack Lightning, and Pigpen stays on harmonica through the song and the jam, very effectively.

3/21/72 Big Railroad Blues (harmonica) 
3/22/72 Big Railroad Blues (harmonica) 
I don’t know if Pigpen plays harmonica in any other electric Big Railroad Blues. On the 21st he drops out halfway through, but on the 22nd he keeps up through the song. 

4/8/72 Dark Star (organ)
I generally haven’t included Pigpen’s organ-work on this list, but felt this performance should be mentioned. I believe it was the first time Pigpen had played in Dark Star since 1968. Back then, he was repeating the same 8-note riff through the whole song. Here, he abruptly appears in the middle of a deep Europe ’72 jam (about 19 minutes in), adds a creepy background for a couple minutes, then steps out again. Very mysterious.

6/17/72 Stella Blue (organ)
This was the only time Pigpen played on a Wake of the Flood song, the debut of Stella Blue. (This was his last show, and he was too ill to sing.) The organ adds an unusual feel since Keith didn’t play organ on later versions.

Sometimes Pigpen would play with other musicians as well, although none of these were recorded:
“The New Peanut Butter Sandwich” – 10/16/66 Avalon (multi-group blues jam)
Big Mama Thornton - 9/2/68 Sky River Rock Festival (on organ)
(Downbeat: “a soulful blues session led by Big Mama Thornton, accompanied by James Cotton on mouth harp… Behind Miss Thornton, Pigpen comped and comped and comped - almost no solos.”)
Fleetwood Mac – 1/13/69 Novato studio jam with the Dead (on piano)  
(Dinky Dawson praised Pigpen’s “fantastic rhythmic piano playing.”)
Eric Burdon & War – 4/5/70 Family Dog (on congas)
John Hammond – 4/24/70 Mammoth Gardens (harmonica & guitar)  
(The encore for the Dead’s show: “John Hammond came back and sang, backed by Pigpen on harp and second guitar, a mellow denouement.”)
Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia – 1971 Keystone Berkeley (on harmonica, unknown dates)
(Merl said: “Ron would sit in with us and I was always trying to get him to play keyboards. He would say ‘No, I just want to play my harmonica behind your organ playing.’”) 

According to one witness, during the New Riders' set on 7/16/70 at the Euphoria Ballroom, Pigpen and Janis Joplin sang two Merle Haggard drinking songs, The Bottle Let Me Down and Swinging Doors (both 1966 country hits). This isn't verified by other witnesses, but the New Riders would have been comfortable with these songs - in fact, both songs were already in the New Riders' repertoire, played in other shows that year. And Pigpen was known to sing country now and then, for instance in his one-off 1969 studio recording of I'm A Loving Man.