Pancho and Lefty

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For the album of the same name on which this song is featured, see Pancho & Lefty (album).
"Pancho and Lefty"
Song by Townes Van Zandt from the album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
Released 1972
Genre Country
Length 3:40
Label Tomato
Writer Townes Van Zandt
Producer Kevin Eggers, Jack Clement
The Late Great Townes Van Zandt track listing
"Pancho and Lefty"
"If I Needed You"
"Pancho and Lefty"
Single by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
from the album Pancho & Lefty
Released 1983
Genre Country
Length 4:44
Label Epic
Producer(s) Chips Moman, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard singles chronology
"You Take Me for Granted"
"Pancho and Lefty"
"What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)"
Willie Nelson singles chronology
"Little Old Fashioned Karma"
"Pancho and Lefty"
"Why Do I Have to Choose"

"Pancho and Lefty" is a song written by country singer and songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Often considered his "most enduring and well-known song," Van Zandt first recorded it for his 1972 album, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.[1] Emmylou Harris then covered the song for her 1977 album, Luxury Liner. Also in 1977, Hoyt Axton recorded it on his album Snowblind Friend. The song became a number one country hit in 1983 when Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson adopted it as the title track of their duet album Pancho & Lefty. Steve Earle performs the song on his 2009 album Townes, which consists of songs written by van Zandt, Earle's friend and mentor. Canadian country artist George Canyon recorded a version of the song with Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy on Canyon's album Classics II, released in November 2012.

Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[2]

Content and composition[edit]

The song tells the story of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and a more enigmatic character, Lefty. The song tells of Pancho's death and implies that he was betrayed by his associate Lefty who was paid off by the Mexican federales.

Although the lyrics are not exactly reconcilable with the historic details of the life and death of the famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Van Zandt does not rule out the idea. In an interview, he recalled, "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."[3]

In the same interview, Van Zandt recalled, "We got stopped by these two policeman and...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 I think maybe that's what it's about, those two guys... I hope I never see them again"[3]


Two Interpretations of the Narrative
The song is more a character study of the imperfect union between two bandits and how betrayal plays a part in the hero Pancho’s downfall, and how Lefty goes on in his life (“to Ohio”). Writing in "American Songwriter," Jim Beviglia[4] argues that Lefty did not betray Pancho, instead suggesting that the song contrasts the choice between going out in a "blaze of glory" versus growing old and gray -- a theme also addressed by Neil Young.[5] However, the line "Lefty split for Ohio / Where he got the bread to go there / Ain't nobody knows" suggests that Lefty sold out Pancho, and in addition, a bandit character named Pancho, even if not directly in reference to the historical figure Pancho Villa, would have had a reward out for him. Further still, the federales likely wouldn't have gotten Pancho without the betrayal of one of his friends ("We only let him slip away / Out of kindness, I suppose").
Pancho and Lefty would seem to be hero and villain, respectively, but the song seems to tell the story of their torn relationship objectively, with both of them doing what they “had to do”:

He only did what he had to do / And now he's growin' old

In a way, this is a universal story of ambition and friendship. Alliances help us succeed and broaden our ambitions, but circumstance tears at every alliance, and this can apply to things as broad as business deals and marriage. The theme of the moral code for thieves finds expression in texts as wide-ranging as songs by Bob Dylan ("Absolutely Sweet Marie": "But to live outside the law, you must be honest")[6] and the film Pirates of the Caribbean.[7]
Point of View
The narrator speaks from an objective point of view as if he knew of both characters, or even had an omniscient view of their relationship. The objective point of view takes away from the hero/villain reading of these characters and universalizes the ebb and flow of their alliance.
The early part of the song is about how “livin’ on the road was going to keep you free and clean,” but evidently Pancho wanted to keep on the road and Lefty wanted a way out. This conflict determines the rest of the narrative.
The deserts down in Mexico, and, in the aftermath, Lefty in Cleveland, Ohio.
Betrayal, friendship, living with the aftermath, alliances and their breaking, the outlaw lifestyle.
The simplicity of the language belies the complex characterization from Van Zandt; the imagery is very short; the song has few adjectives.
One of the song’s strengths is that the rhymes are unpredictable at the end of the lines; some verses go AAAB, while the intro verse goes ABCB.
Four verses, chorus, two verses, chorus, two verses, two choruses.
In this excerpt, Lefty must live with the knowledge of how he betrayed his friend, which evidently is a fate worse than to have died with Pancho:

The dust that Pancho bit down south / Ended up in Lefty's mouth

The line “…out of kindness I suppose” draws the contrast between how the federales thought they could have caught Pancho at any time, but needed Lefty’s betrayal to get their man.

Chart performance[edit]

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard[edit]

Chart (1983) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary Tracks 21
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1

Notes and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Beviglia, Jim (30 April 2012). "Townes van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty"". American Songwriter. Retrieved 5 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Western Writers of America. "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Retrieved 2014-08-08. 
  3. ^ a b 1984 PBS series, "Austin Pickers". Ed Heffelfinger.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)
  6. ^
  7. ^ Parley

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"The Closer You Get"
by Alabama
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number-one single

July 23, 1983
Succeeded by
"I Always Get Lucky with You"
by George Jones
RPM Country Tracks
number-one single

August 6, 1983
Succeeded by
"He's a Heartache (Looking for a Place to Happen)"
by Janie Fricke