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.


  21 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. Agreed. But what is the basic plot line?

  4. Closer to # 1. I guess I take it more literally. The Jesus/Judas thing is strikes me as something somebody came up with in freshmen comp.

  5. That’s a pretty cool clip — late 80s/early 90s?. They actually sound crystal clear compared to my recent live experiences with both of the them. Neither of them really “sing” anymore.

  6. misterioso

    1993, I believe, Willie’s 60th birthday.

  7. 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.

  8. Interesting, and a new take on it. Who is the narrator addressing in the beginning? And who is the narrator?

  9. misterioso

    Yes, that has always struck me as odd. I guess I took it as the singer/narrator addressing Lefty.

  10. misterioso

    Could be. But isn’t the suggestion (in the song) that Lefty is somehow complicit in/responsible for Pancho’s death?

  11. I take Lefty to BE the narrator, singing a song to console himself, meaning Townes Van Zandt. Despite any particular songwriter’s denials, isn’t that just about always the case?

  12. I’m not fully remembering all the details of Blake’s Songs of Innocence/Experience, but I think Lefty’s role in Pancho’s “death” is in the literary sense of the artist singing a song about the legendary character, thereby pinning down that character to a legend and fate beyond his control. The artist, in turn, kind of gets pinned down and made less “revolutionary” through the process of doing what he does. I loved that collection of poems when I was in my early 20s and smoking tons of pot, so my interpretation may be a little hazy, but that’s how I read the song (and probably how I read much of what goes on in life).

  13. misterioso

    Umm, yeah.

  14. I like this take on it. The first explanation that I listed above still seems like the most plausible, but I will ruminate on this one all weekend.

  15. BigSteve

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

  16. ladymisskirroyale

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

  17. Interesting. Why so, Big Steve?

  18. BigSteve

    I just don’t think he put the pieces together in a satisfactory way. I’ve heard many versions of the song, and none of them have made enough sense for me to try to figure it out. I think I also find it hard to take the cowboy/outlaw mythology seriously.

  19. 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.

  20. I first heard the song around 1976. I was 12 years old. My first take was that Pancho and Lefty were the same guy. The more over my life I was convinced I was correct as I learned more details about Townes Van Zandt. Pancho was young Townes with his life and dreams all ahead of him. Lefty is what was Left of him after his parents had shock treatments done on him to correct his behavior. The first verse tells the story completely. Lefty has the same dirt in his mouth as Pancho. Lefty went to hell as in the cold of Cleveland. They only let him hang around out of kindness was a tip that he played his enablers.

    Townes was brilliant. He laid I all out in the open for us all to see.

  21. Hi folks,
    I came here because I was looking for some clarification on the lyrics to Pancho & Lefty. I want to thank everyone for some great insight. I also would like to ask all’s opinion on a take I have as no one mentioned this, so maybe I’m out to lunch.

    I see Pancho as who Townes sees himself to be, and wanted to be (as well as how he thinks his mom sees him) and “the dream he slipped inside” when he left home. And Lefty is who he ultimately became. What makes me think this is “not his mothers only son, but favorite one it seems”. A mother’s “favorite son” is usually one who is “different” maybe special or handicapped or with a take on life that she feels might be dangerous, this is reinforced when “she began to cry when he said goodbye and slipped into his dream”. So he left home and mom was devastated that she can no longer help him, “began to cry”= she hadn’t cried before and now has lost hope to straighten out her son, that’s if we believe that every word of a song takes us to it’s meaning (ie, no wasted words). The “slipped into his dream”, is finite and not necessarily a good thing, the description is ominous, ie (slipped into something outside reality).

    But actually I came for clarification on “he wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel”. This is very precise wordage and it seems Townes wants us to understand something very important. I see this, and again, I could be trippin’, as when he “said goodbye and slipped into his dream”. His dream was to live in a socially unaccepted honesty and show who he truly was (Pancho). He felt different than the rest of the “honest world” and calls them “honest”, though he does not feel that about “the world”. and wouldn’t “guns outside his pants” be- “to be seen”; why does he say “to feel”..? that’s so out there as a lyric it’s almost incorrect; you don’t feel someone showing off their guns, unless “guns” is synonymous with his “way of living, thinking and feeling”, then it makes sense.

    I believe that the classic story is as many of you say, but the first verse is what interests me, again “living on the road, my friend was gonna keep us free and clean” (= the dream, Pancho), “but now you wear your skin like iron and your breath’s as hard as kerosene”, ( = the breaking of the dream, Lefty). For me this is what sets up everything in the story. and is Townes himself.

    That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Again thanks already for your help and I would love to hear your take on mine.


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