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.


  1. You probably know this, but NFA is not a Stones cover, it's a Buddy Holly song.

    1. I knew someone would say this!
      Strictly speaking it's a Buddy Holly cover, but I think in '66 the Dead were covering the Stones' version, not the original. Their cover is entirely in the Stones style - the rhythm, the guitars, the harmonica - and draws nothing from Holly's original.
      The Dead shared a number of cover songs with the early Stones; as a rule the Dead knew the originals and covered them directly rather than the Stones' versions - King Bee is one exception that seems to draw more from the Stones than from Slim Harpo.
      But Not Fade Away is the most flagrant Stones copy where the Dead played as if Holly's recording didn't exist. (Until the '80s, anyway, when they brought the "bop-bop" back.)

  2. A few additions.

    Pigpen probably plays harp on the 1969-09-06 Family Dog Not Fade Away although I am not totally convinced it isn't a guest. It is hard to tell after four minutes when Pig is singing the backing NFAs if the harp overlaps or not.

    There are a few more acoustic Don't Ease Me Ins from May 1970 with Pigpen. On 70-05-02 and 14 he plays harp and on 70-05-15 he plays organ. He did not play on it on 70-05-03 or 7 or again (as far as we know) until 1970-07-04.

    On 1970-09-20 he also plays piano on Deep Ellum.

    At the 1971-06-21 Chateau d'Herouville show Pigpen plays electric piano for what I think is the only time for much of the set.

    He plays harp on the 1972-03-22 Big Railroad Blues as well as the 21st.

    Supposedly Pigpen guested together with Janis Joplin on the drinking songs The Bottle Let Me Down and Swinging Doors in the New Riders set at the 1970-07-16 Euphoria Ballroom show according to reviewer ozoid in 2004. That sounds interesting if true but there is no supporting evidence for this.

    Finally, surely Pigpen's six solo acoustic tunes from the Family Dog on 1970-04-18 and the five from the next night count as unexpected.

    1. Thanks for the additions; I've included them in the post.

    2. Brings back memories of younger days. I was never a deadhead but had a friend whose entire hatch back was filled with bootleg tapes. I saw them once with Dylan and used to enjoy Max Creek shows. I can appreciate your passion and dedication though.

  3. Great article, thanks. Not sure if it's within the scope of this article but, on 1970-05-24, as they're playing Attics Of My Life, you can hear Lesh shout 'E, play an E chord' followed immediately by an E chord on the organ. Not got my recording to hand so can't remember to what extent Pigpen contributes after that.

    1. Other than that one brief E chord to keep the band from falling apart, I don't think Pigpen plays organ in any Attics, or in the rest of this one. Some organ might have suited the song, though!

  4. In one of the Dead's Fillmore East shows, 7/12/70, Pigpen had hurt his voice and did not sing any songs. Instead, Bob Weir sang Good Lovin' for him (quite enthusiastically).

  5. Thanks, again. In some cases, the mix helps highlight what he’s playing. Check out 3/3/71. Although this article mostly focuses on his contributions other than the organ, the organ activity on Bertha and Truckin’, for example, while bolstered by the mix, is definitely more than backing contribution. In the Other One, the organ is also prominent, yet everyone’s paring into the simmering stock. I except he’s right in there on many other shows, but due to the variability in mix it can seem unexpected when we actually here these integral and/ or standout organ contributions.

    1. True, the organ presence in the mix varies quite a bit from show to show (and this was true in the Constanten days as well). So it's not always easy to tell what the organ's up to, when the Dead's own taping crew considered it expendable in the mix.
      Someone should put together a list of which songs Pigpen usually plays organ on during 1970-71...I haven't checked that. But there are many other songs he simply sat out, for whatever reason.

  6. The September 17, 1970 Rolling Stone article (by Michael Lyndon) best describes Pigpen’s instrumental contributions in the era: “he doodled around when he wanted to (play) and he just sat there when he didn’t.”

    1. That was probably what it looked like, but I suspect there was more to it than that. For one thing, Lydon was specifically describing an acoustic set where Pigpen was playing piano on just a few songs. Which is why a listing of the songs he did & didn't play on might be revealing: in the acoustic sets for example, it's noticeable that in general (other than a couple of the new songs) Pigpen plays on the blues-based tunes but avoids the folk & country-style material.

  7. pigpen playing guiro on 04-08-71 - there is a photo in nedbase.

    do his studio session tracks warrant a mention?

    I-) ihor

    1. Any appearance by Pigpen in the studio after Anthem is probably worth a mention; other than his one song per album I'm not sure if he played on anything.
      Pigpen playing guiro may be less rare than we might suspect...he plays guiro in the 4/21/72 Playing as well, and might be off-mike in any number of other performances. But I must say, none of the other members of the Dead played so many different instruments on stage: organ & piano, guitar, harmonica, and percussion (congas & guiro).

    2. He injured his hand playing tambourine on 10/4/70 as well...

    3. workingman's compensation? :-) :-)

      I-) ihor

    4. I think Pig also played maracas sometimes in the Europe '72 shows.

    5. The Hammond organ and harmonica on the studio cut of "Black Peter" is Pigpen, presumably?

    6. Yep, I think that's Pigpen. It's curious how Black Peter, of all songs, is one Pigpen regularly played on. You might say it took over the 'Death Don't Have No Mercy' slot.
      I don't recall any live versions where Pigpen added harmonica, although Will Scarlett does on 5/3/70.

  8. pigpen gets interviewed, a little: Grateful Dead Live at KFRC studio on 1966-11-00

    I-) ihor

  9. Is there any Dark Star in the pre-Keith & Donna/ post-T C era (1970-71) where Pigpen actually played his organ? I loved Tom’s swirly psychedelic Hammond, work and like Keith’s jazzy Electric piano. But I can’t seem to find anything from Pigpen in this middle period. Apparently Pigpen just sat out of the entire time but I really don’t know all of the versions.

    1. Pigpen didn't play organ on a single Dark Star in 1970-71.
      You can hear Ned Lagin on electric piano on the 4/8/71 Dark Star, though, and now we know that Pigpen was apparently playing a guiro during that performance; so he may have added some hidden percussion to other Dark Stars as well.

    2. Not sure if that's entirely true, I think he might have played a few notes on the Fox theater one on 2/2/70.

    3. He might have, at that... (Some organ notes are evident shortly before each verse.) But the organ's so low in the mix it's almost subliminal.

  10. Checkout 4/9/70 at the Fillmore West,where Pig can be heard playing organ on the back half of Not Fade Away, beginning about the 6:00 point, and on into the intro to Love Light(!), where you can easily envision the moment when he steps away from the organ to begin his lyrics at the mic. (I'm listening to the 3/2019 SIRMick effort.)

  11. You can also hear Pigpen's organ on 6/4/70, also on Not Fade Away, also at the Fillmore West. He kicks it off at 0:36 into NFA.

  12. Pigpen frequently played organ on NFA during 1970 - for instance on 2/23/70, 3/20/70, 5/15/70 & 9/18/70. He sometimes played organ now & then during Lovelight too - for instance on 2/8/70, 3/20/70 & 5/15/70. There are probably many other shows where his organ is turned down too low to tell. But it seems these are songs where he could play or not play when he felt like it.

  13. By the way, my next post here will be in May.

  14. Pigpen also plays some organ on 'Dark Star' from the Lyceum gig on 25 May 1972. Like the one on 8 April it's during one of the murky parts and is very short. I'll give it a listen and send a post with the timing.

    What I find interesting is that Pigpen was playing quite a lot more on 'The Other One' during the Europe tour than he had been a year before, where he played little more than a couple of runs during the verses. On the Europe ones that I've heard, he's involved practically all the way through what are by then massively jammed-out renditions. Unfortunately, the one on 26 April didn't have the organ recorded for some reason.

    A negative side to the band's released live recordings from 1971-72 -- Skull and Roses and Europe 72 is that Pigpen's organ was edited out on many songs and sometimes even replaced with overdubs from Merl Saunders. That seems an odd thing to do, as the complete Europe recordings and soundboard and audience recordings show that there was nothing wrong with his playing.

    Dr Paul

    1. Very true about the Complete Europe '72 and Pigpen's organ playing. Totally in the pocket, nice colors, not overstepping. Weird inter-band decision making (as always with GD) to edit him out.

    2. Wait, did Merl play overdubs on E72? I thought it was just S&R.

    3. Merl said he did overdubs on E72 and he's generally credited with it... The strange thing is there don't seem to be any actual organ overdubs on that album: it's all Pigpen's playing, just reduced in the mix. So it's a small mystery what Merl did on that album (if anything).

  15. A couple more Pigpen spottings in the early acoustic sets: aside from organ on Black Peter, he also plays organ on Seasons of My Heart 2/23/70 and (quietly) on Deep Elem Blues 3/20/70.
    I think he's regularly on percussion during the acoustic Uncle John's Bands as well. He may not have shown up often during the acoustic sets, but when he did he was versatile!

  16. I think I hear Pigpen briefly playing harp either side of the two minute mark on the newly circulated 1970-09-19 acoustic To Lay Me Down.

    1. Wait, what? Admittedly in an audience tape of this quality it's hard to tell, but I don't hear any harp, just Pigpen on organ throughout the song (which would make it hard for him to play harp too).

      Actually the instrumentation of these two unique To Lay Me Downs on 9-19 and 9-20 is quite intriguing and mysterious - it may be the Dead with an extremely rare three-keyboard setup. There's Garcia on piano, Weir on tremolo'd guitar, Pigpen on organ (actually more audible on 9-19), and somebody on what sounds like electric piano playing mostly high notes (or it could be a guitar with some effect on it?). Maybe my ears are deceiving me, but I'm baffled by who the extra player is...there are few candidates. It could even be David Grisman (who played organ for the Rowan Brothers).

      It also makes me suspect that they may have tried this arrangement in the studio as well, on takes we haven't heard. A singular setup like this is a lot of trouble to go to for just one song, and it's obviously well-rehearsed with everyone playing very minimally.

  17. Pigpen plays piano on the newly available acoustic demo of Truckin', and even takes a little solo break at the end. I sure wasn't expecting that.
    He also provides piano for the studio demo of To Lay Me Down.