Pancho and Lefty

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A cover of Townes van Zandt’s border bandito song “Pancho and Lefty.” Van Zandt was one of the great Texas songwriters of the 1960s-1980s, of roughly the same generation as Guy Clark and Willis Alan Ramsey. I picture this song taking place on the Mexican border near the beginning of the twentieth century at a time when trains and cars overlapped with horses and wagons. We never really get a clear picture of what Pancho and Lefty actually did or how they fell out (though the implication seems to be that Lefty betrayed Pancho), but van Zandt’s terse lines paint evocative, almost cinematic pictures.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song famous during the 1980s with their cover of it, and I was first exposed to the song through their version. I later discovered van Zandt’s original and much prefer it, though my own version probably borrows indiscriminately from both.

Livin’ on the road my friend
Was gonna keep us free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath is 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 was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel

But Pancho met his match, you know
In the desert 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
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 boys tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty’s living in cheap hotels
The desert’s quiet and 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

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose