"Pancho & Lefty" as written by and Townes Van Zandt....
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Pancho & Lefty song meanings
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  • +6
    General CommentAccording to the new Townes biography, Townes himself mentioned to someone once that it was an allegory for Jesus and Judas. Townes also said that someone was doing a PhD dissertation on the song and he himself was waiting to find out what it was about. Townes' tongue seemed to be permanently glued to his cheek.

    Townes was one of the great storytellers - I'd take ANY of his interpretations of his own songs with a lick of salt (and a shot of tequila).
    zippymoroccoon November 10, 2007   Link
  • +4
    General CommentLoved this song even long before I finally got what happens in it - and then I loved it even more.

    Key lines: "Where he got the bread to go ain't nobody knows", "He just did what he had to do"

    Lefty sells Pancho to the cops. He betrays his best friend (and possibly more than that, if you want to over-interpret the "gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel" line). Pancho gets killed, Lefty gets to live with the guilt and 30 pieces of silver. Yet Townes has at least as much sympathy for Lefty as for Pancho - "Pancho needs your prayers, it's true, but save a few for Lefty too". Lefty's the villain of the piece, but also the one who ends up losing everything. Extremely sad and beautiful song.
    beer goodon July 18, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General CommentThis has to be one of the most perfect songs ever written. It tells a beautiful, complete story, without one spare word to it.

    That said, I've always been intrigued by the first stanza. It seems unrelated to the "plot" that makes up the rest of the song, but somehow the song wouldn't be complete without it. Just on its own, it's an amazing piece of poetry. I like how it sends up all the myths about the freedom and virtue of "living on the road" that were so common in the 60s and 70s. He's talking to all the innocent romantics who went out to live that life, which was never more than a dream, who they could drop out of society and live "free and clean" on the road forever. In reality, all it did was turn them into cold, tough, hard men, and break their mothers' hearts.

    Like I say, I love that first stanza, but I can't figure out how it relates to the rest of the song. Maybe Lefty started out as one like them, dreaming of a romantic bandit's life. Then, after circumstances got out of control and he betrayed Poncho, he lost his faith in himself and his own goodness, and now he looks in the mirror and sees himself as the "bad guy" with the skin like iron, breath like kerosene. So I guess the whole thing could be about good intentions gone wrong, the dangers of letting dreams and romance influence your decisions.
    iggy72on February 06, 2012   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI didn't note in my comment above, but I've always heard the first lines as "Living on the road my friend/ WAS going to keep you free and clean." The lyrics on this page have that as "is," not "was," which would change the meaning signficantly.
    iggy72on February 06, 2012   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI'm new to this site and P&L is the first song I looked up....and no comments. I'm surprised. I've had more discussions about this song than maybe any other....Is there any thing in the song that says they ever even knew each other? Some say no I say yes....which one is the favorite son? What I like the most about the song is how it can take you to a different "place", every time you hear it and play it. Hardest song I ever learned because the lyrics can distract you as you are playing the song. TVZ is one of the very best song writers ever....
    EdShron April 09, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentGreat cowboy song. It can summarize every Western movie ever made. Life isn't the greatest thing we have to lose.

    Best lines of this song:
    "The dust that Pancho bit down south
    Ended up in Lefty's mouth"
    and
    "The poets tell how Pancho fell
    Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel"

    Life isn't the greatest thing we can give up.
    jmb3ron June 19, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThe song seems to me to be autobiographical... The 1st verse is the tip off...

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

    Later he sings

    Lefty he can't sing the blues
    All night long like he used to

    Which I'm pretty sure is self referential

    And later still he sings

    Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel

    Which is where he spent most of his time.

    Who Pancho is I'm not 100% sure. Could be someone he was involved with professionally who screwed him over or it could be, as has been suggested by some, the other side of his manic depressive personality.

    In this last case he is whole in the first verse but then splits into two distinct personalities (after being out on the road so long) for the rest of the song.

    Perhaps he felt he'd sold himself out (of a better/easier life) by choosing the life of a wandering troubadour?

    Ciberratton July 22, 2009   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationMusic lovers, I just found this site (songmeanings.net/songs/view/142055/) while doing an internet search on “Pancho and Lefty.”

    I first heard this song by Emmy Lou Harris back in the late 70’s. I loved it then, but didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out the meaning. It seemed a simple story. A few years back a friend gave me a CD with a collection of Townes’ songs, mostly sung by others. Interestingly, he chose Harris version of “Pancho and Lefty” though I know he is familiar with Willie and Merle’s version. After listening to it on the way home from work one night I got on the internet to find out more about the song. I was curious to find out if it was based on a real event. This first search ended with nothing solid, so I let it go.

    A few nights ago my wife came home from work talking about a live version of the song she heard on KBCO, a Denver station that records many musicians when they play in Denver. She couldn’t remember who did it, so we did a search for the song on Rhapsody and we listened to many versions. At the end I played her Emmy Lou’s version and she agreed it was the most moving. She referred to it as “haunting” and I agree. I will add that she was a folk and blues singer, and music major, when I met her in 1978, so I respect her taste.

    I have had a great time searching the posts here and getting other’s ideas on the meaning. One person posting on this site says that Townes said the song was about Jesus and Judas. I don’t buy that. Jesus may have been an outlaw, but he wasn’t a bandit. Other posters believe that Lefty was a compadre of Pancho who sold him out for a payoff from the Federales. Still others believe that the song is about Townes himself. That interpretation gives meaning to the line:

    “His Mother cried when he said goodbye,
    And sank into his dreams.”

    Perhaps this refers to the insulin shock therapy that Townes went through when his parents brought him back from college at CU. Wikipedia says that giving Townes that treatment was the greatest regret of his mother’s life and that he lost all of his long term memory as a result. It could be that he withdrew and “sank into his dreams” after that event. Also, Townes did have a brother, so that fits this interpretation. If we take this approach the other details don’t matter as much, as the song is an allegory. Making sense of how all of the details fit together is less important than if we take the story literally.

    Before taking any of these interpretations too seriously I want to point out that the song wasn’t written by a disciplined poet, but by an addict/alcoholic with mental illness. Perhaps he really had no memory of what inspired the song or the act of writing it. If so, it makes his comment about wanting to read the dissertation that a student was writing on his song in order to find out it’s meaning, especially witty. He may have been saying we can read too much into what is at heart meant to be just a good story, I have heard other song writers say that they don’t remember what they were thinking when they wrote a song.

    When I first heard the song I thought that Lefty was a bounty hunter who came down from the north to hunt down Pancho. Reading the lyrics, I still like that interpretation. The blues is an American music form and I doubt it was popular in rural Mexico in the early 20th century. If “ Lefty can’t sing the blues all night like he used to” his place of origin must be north of the border. The line “Pancho met his match” reinforces this. To me that implies that the two hadn’t known each other before the encounter. Lefty was as wiley as Pancho and Pancho couldn’t shake him. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being chased through the west by special trackers: “Who are those guys?” My take on the Federales is that they were embarrassed by the inability to bring Pancho in and quietly offered a bounty on him. At least in American film the Federales do not have a reputation for kindness. The reality on their temperament probably varies, but I have to take the line as ironic.

    Figuring out how Lefty heard about the bounty leaves a bit of hole in this theory. However, the line “The Dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth” fits nicely with this. To “bite the dust” means to die, usually by violent means. That this killing occurred “down south” implies that the viewpoint of the story was from the north. I take this viewpoint to be Lefty’s if he went south to hunt Pancho, though it could also be the narrator’s. As for why the dust “ended up in Lefty’s mouth, perhaps a little of Lefty died when he killed Pancho, and thus he had dust in his mouth too. We can only imagine why he felt this way, but perhaps it was because he found Pancho a worthy adversary. Of course the “bread” that he used to go back north was the bounty and perhaps some of Pancho’s ill gotten gains.

    One final comment: If I were to sing this song, and you surely wouldn’t want to hear it if I did, I would change the line about Pancho wearing his gun outside his pants to “For all the honest world to fear” instead of “for all the honest world to feel. ”Townes reached too far for a rhyme here, when “close to a rhyme would have been fine.” See what I mean? LewBob
    LewBobon August 08, 2013   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationThe first verse is key. As with most all of Townes' work, there's not a spare word in the whole thing.

    Pat Pattison says in his book on song-writing that a song should establish who is talking to who and why or it won't be all it can be. The first verse does this.

    This is the story of two tragedies and the fork in the road a young man faces, whether to pursue the glorious free death or the long safe life. It's also about the tragedy of the American man and then less provably it's about Townes.

    Here's the literal story for the whole song:

    The boy has run away to live on the road, the mother has sent a friend, private eye or lover after him, some older man anyway and he's found him on the road. Rather than just drag him back he's giving him the benefit of his wisdom. The man doing the talking is Lefty and Lefty is an unreliable narrator.

    In the second verse he's telling the boy about his friend Pancho who lived on the road but ultimately died. Pancho is a nickname for boys called ‘Francis’ which originally means ‘free’. Townes was a great reader of history and would have known this. Pancho represents the choice the boy has to run after the free life.

    Lefty doesn't want to let be known who he is to the boy though. Maybe he sold out his buddy, maybe he didn't. I think he did though and the reason is in the misquoted chorus above. The chorus actually changes with each telling. In the first, the federales needed kindness to get him to 'hang around'. E.g. get hung by being betrayed. This is the tragedy of the man who seeks glory. His choices are his own undoing.

    Lefty is growing old, can't play anymore and the death (dust) has made him silent about things, referencing how he can't tell the whole truth to us and the boy. Finally we're left with the tragedy of growing old, the tragedy of the man who seeks safety.

    Secondly it's about America. Americans, as opposed to Europeans always went to the frontier to grow up, to live. There was a great piece in GQ magazine about Eustace Conway in 1998, a man who lives like the old pioneers hunting bucks with his bare hands and riding across America on horseback. The American man pines for this lifestyle but it's gone. He can now live on a different frontier and die a criminal, or he can die the slow death of civilization in Cleveland motel. It's the tragedy of the modern man.

    Lastly, I think both Pancho and Lefty are to some extent both Townes. Townes was born to money but went to live with the people, with prostitutes, bar-flies, drug addicts and worst of all, songwriters. He lived the life of the American tragedy and his best songs are about that life. He sought the frontier, he sought to live but he found his own tragedies. The biggest one is probably the three months of insulin shock therapy his family put his through in the sanitarium. Essentially therapeutic brain damage administered by psychiatrists and now no longer practiced. The therapy left him without his long term memory, and I think that is Pancho. The left brain in most people is the dominant 'conscious' brain. The song therefore could also be about Townes's brain damage. Pancho is the lost part, the person he was. Lefty is the person he is now, growing old.
    alan585859on July 09, 2014   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's not about Pancho Villa!
    Lukethedrifteron June 24, 2005   Link

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