Pancho and Lefty

Okay, so I’m a bit obsessed with this song.
I have a particular love for story songs and Townes Van Zandt was a Zen master of the form. I can’t help but refer to the fine line between madness and great talent when it comes to the late Van Zandt. Those unmistakable roots in his imagery and the lineage of great story tellers from the great state of Texas also had a down side. He grew up in an era and an area where his early odd behavior resulted in electroshock treatments. Over the ensuing years a lot of fellow artists, fans and loving women tried to keep that bright flame going, not always for altruistic reasons. The light went out on a cold new years eve when Townes slipped away due to his medical problems and chronic alcoholism.

There are a lot of great versions out there of course. Willie Nelson’s hit record is somewhat marred by the pop trappings of the day, but his youtube performance with Bob Dylan runs deep. Any version of the song has merit because the story works on so many levels. It involves the listener because of what’s left unsaid. Did Lefty turn Pancho in? Was it for the money? Pancho was a mythic figure, a bandit admired by law enforcement. His redemption and that of Lefty is that a song exists about them, an extension of a venerable folk tradition… conveying the essence of great events in song. Great friendship, betrayal, redemption, forgiveness and acceptance…. a terse American short story. It could have been written by Hemingway, except for that haunting melody.

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 boys
His horse as 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

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
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

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

TOWNES VAN ZANDT, Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall


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