Pancho and Lefty

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The poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in cheap hotels

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It’s one of the most beloved and recognizable Texas country songs ever recorded, but do you know what inspired Pancho and Lefty? Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song famous with their 1983 duet, but the song had its origins on a 1972 album by the man widely regarded as the greatest Texas songwriter of all-time: Townes Van Zandt.

Pancho and Lefty is a story song, one of the finest of the genre. It tells of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friendship with Lefty, the man who ultimately betrays him. Many of the details in the lyrics mirror the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923. Villa’s dying words? “Don’t let it end like this, tell them I said something great.” Or perhaps not; it’s up for debate.

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On the similarity between the song’s Pancho and the famous revolutionary, Van Zandt once remarked, “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue. It came through me, and it’s a real nice song, and I think, I’ve finally found out what it’s about. I’ve always wondered what it’s about. I kinda always knew it wasn’t about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant ‘Lefty.’ But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. ‘They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose,’ and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated.”

While on tour, Van Zandt actually met the real Pancho and Lefty. Well, okay, not exactly, but it’s still a pretty amusing story. “We got stopped by these two policeman,” Van Zandt recalled. “They said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter,’ and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful.’ And so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song Pancho and Lefty. You ever heard that song Pancho and Lefty? I wrote that.’ And they looked back around, and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty… so I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys… I hope I never see them again.”

That wasn’t the only time Van Zandt had a brush with the law in connection with the song. Townes wrote the song in a crummy hotel on the outskirts of Denton, the only lodging he could find, because at the time, Billy Graham was staging a huge festival that would be called the “Christian Woodstock.” All the decent hotels in the area were booked solid, which meant Van Zandt was exiled to a lousy room in a place near Denton. Bored, Van Zandt decided to write a song. Three and a half hours later,  “‘Pancho and Lefty’ drifted through the window,” he said, “and I wrote it down.”

The next day, Van Zandt and his buddy Daniel Antopolsky drove toward Dallas to play a gig. The streets were full of young Christian hitch-hikers going to see Billy Graham. Townes and Daniel heard sirens behind them; a cop was pulling them over. It meant trouble, because neither man had proper ID.

The cop gave the pair a hard look. The musicians were a sight to see: both long-haired and wild-looking. When the cop asked for their IDs, Daniel had only an expired license. Hilariously, all Townes could show the cop was his face on an album cover. The situation looked grim, then out of nowhere, Daniel Antopolsky employed the one strategy that could save them.

As Townes explained, “Daniel, out of the blue, looks up at the policeman through the window and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you know Jesus?’ And the cop looks at him, hands him back his driver’s license, and says, ‘You boys best be careful.’”

And just like that, the pair of songwriters were saved.

PANCHO AND LEFTY ~ WATCH

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Here is a restored version of Townes playing his most famous song at a ranch in Austin, Texas in 1975. I took this footage from the cult classic film, “Heartworn Highways” and then sharpened the image a bit. I found that the audio of this performance had been remastered and remixed on a recent album, so I overdubbed the footage with that version, which is incredibly clearer.

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Lyle Lovett & Marty Stuart

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Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath as hard as kerosene

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 was a bandit boy
His horse was fast as polished steel
He 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
Ah but that’s the way it goes

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

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

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

The poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in cheap hotels
The desert’s quiet, 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

All the Federales say
We could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

A few gray Federales say
We could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Townes Van Zandt

One thought on “Pancho and Lefty

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