May 292014

In the past few days, I’ve become obsessed with the song “Pancho and Lefty,” by Townes Van Zandt. The lyrics contain some great lines, but the more I listen to it, the more I wonder, what is this song really about? It should be noted that I usually take narratives at face value and have trouble reading into subtext and symbolism.

The several accounts that Townes himself gives don’t really shed any light, so here’s a few theories that I’ve formed and/or collected on the internet:

  1. The narrator is telling someone a cautionary tale about the dangers of living outside the law. Pancho and Lefty are two bandits. Pancho was killed by the Federales after being betrayed by Lefty, who is allowed to keep Pancho’s money in exchange for the betrayal. Lefty’s fate is arguably not any better than Pancho’s since he’s relegated to living in a cheap hotel in Cleveland, in hiding and with the guilt of betrayal on his conscience.
  2. Pancho is Jesus and Lefty is Judas.
  3. Pancho faked his own death and is now living in hiding as Lefty.
  4. “Pancho” is a Walter Mitty-like fantasy of Lefty’s.

Any additional theories? Which one do you think is the most accurate interpretation? The lyrics follow…after the jump!

Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean.
Now you wear your skin like iron,
Your breath 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 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
We 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.


  19 Responses to “Can Someone Tell Me What This Song Is About, Part II (Pancho and Lefty)?”

  1. Thanks for posting this.

    “The poets tell how Pancho fell,
    and Lefty’s living in cheap hotels”

    To me, it’s a variation on the “die young, stay pretty” or “better to burn out, than fade away” ethos, which Townes sort of lived out.

    I like Emmylou’s version (w/Rodney Crowell) circa ’78.

  2. misterioso

    A fine song, indeed. I always took it as a variation on the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid theme, and think it is pretty well summarized in #1 above with #2 being also an element, and in a sense it is all a gloss on Dylan’s line “to live outside the law you must be honest.” #3 and 4 are clever but too clever for their own good.

    Incidentally, I quite like the version by Dylan and Willie Nelson, raggedy as it inevitably is.

  3. Isn’t Lefty, as singer-songwriter-artist, being compared with the revolutionary Pancho Villa? I look Villa up on Wikipedia, not really ever knowing who he was, and saw that his final days were tolerated by the Mexican government, as he and 200 loyalists got pensions and were granted a big plot of land to live. I think Lefty’s revolutionary furor, like Pancho’s, is now reduced to a whimper, as noted by his being allowed to “slip away” by The Man.

  4. BigSteve

    Townes wrote some great songs. This is not one of them.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    It’s the lost soundtrack to “The Red Balloon.”

  6. At a show a few years back Jason Isbell raised the possibly of an alternative meaning when he pointed out that there is nothing in the lyric that indicates that Pancho and Lefty ever met. Instead, the story could be two parallel narratives.

    If this is the case perhaps Lefty is a poet or singer who was inspired by the story of Pancho. He left home for a life on the road, a traveling troubadour perhaps, idealistic and celebrating the life of the outlaw only to end up old and broke in some cheap hotel in Cleveland.

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