Friday, December 11, 2009

Pancho and Lefty

A Review of Pancho and Lefty
by Robert A. Waters

One day, many years ago, a friend of mine named Charlie Robertson came to visit. I can’t remember if it was when I was living in Tennessee or after I moved back down to my home state of Florida. Charlie was a great songwriter, a fine singer, and I always envied his guitar playing--he was a natural musician. Every time he came to my house, he’d play a bunch of outstanding new songs that he’d written. But he also sang and played songs that others, mostly friends of his, had written.

On that day, he opened his hard-shell case and pulled out his Yamaha guitar. Then he proceeded to sing a new song by Townes Van Zandt called “Pancho and Lefty.” The lyrics flowed back in time to a desert somewhere in Mexico, maybe around the turn of the century. People were hard-ass back then, breaking their backs and their lives to dredge a few morsels from those dry-bed sands. Pancho, according to the song, robbed and murdered many of those hardworking farmers and businessmen. Lefty may have been a bounty hunter, or a former friend or even a cohort of Pancho. At any rate, he was hired to put an end to the notorious bandit and killer.

Charlie’s voice broke as he sang that song.

Enter the Federales. As I said, the song is understated, but it’s pretty obvious that the lawmen hired Lefty to kill Pancho. Then they paid the murderer and allowed him to “split.” Lefty ended up in a cold, distant country. Maybe he spent time reflecting on his sins. Or maybe he just felt sorry for himself. Maybe he was paranoid, always looking back.

Life moves on, as the song indicates. Things change, friends come and go, and mothers grieve for the lost souls of their children. Some of those children die in a blaze of headlines. Others die in prisons or stinking nursing homes or on the streets or in lonely rooms God knows where. Do their lives matter? As long as a poet like Townes Van Zandt could write about them, these empty lives mattered.

Below are the lyrics.

Pancho and Lefty
By Townes Van Zandt

Livin’ on the road, my friend,
What’s gonna keep you free and clean?
Now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath's as hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams.

Pancho, he was a bandit, boys.
His horse was fast as polished steel.
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel.
Pancho met his match, you know,
On the deserts down in Mexico.
Nobody heard his dying words,
But that's the way it goes.

CHORUS: All the Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose.

Now Lefty, he can't sing the blues
All night long like he used to.
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty's mouth.
The day they laid poor Pancho low,
Lefty split for Ohio.
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows.

CHORUS: All the Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose.

Now the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel.
The desert's hot and Cleveland's cold
And so the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers, it's true,
But save a few for Lefty, too.
He only did what he had to do
And now he's growing old

CHORUS: All the Federales say
they could have had ‘em any day.
They only let ‘em go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose...

CHORUS: A few gray Federales say
They could have had him any day.
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose.

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson had a number one hit with the song. They did a good job, but it was a little too slick for my tastes. Many other singers have recorded it, but none got the feel of it like my old buddy Charlie or its author, Townes Van Zandt.


Anonymous said...

thanks for share..................................................

Unknown said...

It's a great song.

Unknown said...

The song is a folk tale. In it, Pancho and Lefty are pursued by the Federales who come up short time and again despite their claims that they "could have had him anyday". What finally brings Pancho down, in the song at least, is that Lefty sells him out to the US government in return for citizenship and Government protection, hence the lines: "The dust that Pancho bit down south, ended up in leftys mouth", "The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio, and where he got the bread to go, there aint nobody knows", "Pancho needs your prayers its true, but save a few for Lefty too, he only did what he had to do"....In reality, Pancho was at one time Governor of the mexican state of Chihuahua and a revolutionary who fought against 2 oppressive Mexican dictatorships. He was known as "Mexico's Robin Hood" and was a very popular leader. As best I can tell,there was no "Lefty" and if there was a doublecross of any kind, its not a part of the official story.

Pancho and Lefty said...

The meaning may be as simple as, how the reader the listener interprets it, in respect to their life...

Unknown said...

Alex Loves this song. He plays his favorite music on his show every day and 'Pancho and Lefty" is one of his favorite songs. Alex plays other songs that are cringeworthy but this one i love - it draws out the hard midwest in me. check out the show on