Other Peoples' Songs: Pancho and Lefty
A favor for a friend
Some folks I know were going though a tough time recently, health-wise, and they asked if I would do them a favor and record this song for them, to give them some cheer in the hospital. I like songs, I like singing and recording them — and if it brings some happiness to someone: it’s a win/win/win!
I wouldn’t myself have chosen Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” to cover, so it was interesting to be tasked with recording it. I didn’t really get into Townes until I was in college; turns out he was always lurking in the songs I knew from other artists. Townes played at the UC at the University of Montana when I was going to school there; my friend was booking shows for the university and he insisted I go. I didn’t know who this guy was, but then he played all these songs that I knew so well — “To Live is To Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “Rex’s Blues,” and the big hit, “Pancho and Lefty.”
“Pancho and Lefty” is one of those unimpeachable American classics. I imagine I’ve heard it hundreds of times in one form another. Before I recorded it, I went and listened to some of the other classic versions — principally Emmylou’s (which was probably the first one I ever heard as a kid) and Willie’s version. The Merle and Willie take is a weird one, I have to say. I’m not sure who greenlit that TV sitcom theme intro, but man is that a bizarre choice. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
Turn out I’d never actually listened that close to the song. It was always burbling in the background. Clearly, it was about a couple outlaws, doing mischief in Mexico and eluding the Federales. But it doesn’t follow a very clear narrative path, does it? What did they do? Who did they kill? What happened to Pancho? And why did Lefty leave him? There’s more of a mood, a feeling, being evoked here than any kind of clear story. You’re left to fill in the blanks about what the mischief was, how the story goes.
It’s pretty brilliant. Anyway, here’s my take at it:
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