Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” is even better than you think.

From my OkCupid profile: I really feel Townes’ “Pancho & Lefty” is the best song of its kind ever. I must have listened to those lyrics about 200 times before I caught that the title characters were born of a shared mother. I haven’t seen anyone else make that connection.

11-19-2013: I was just asked who I think the Federales were allowing to “go so long”: Pancho or Lefty. Well, here’s my take. Lefty wrote this song, this elliptical autobiography, while huddled in his cold miserable room in Cleveland, trying to assuage & anonymize his guilt over murdering Pancho, who was his (half-)brother. Lefty probably heard some Federales toasting the bandit Pancho long ago in a low-lit bar, which left Lefty even more bitter, and probably cinched his decision to kill him. (Pancho, after all, deserted their loving mother – she who loved her favorite Pancho SO much more than she barely accepted the doting Lefty.) So, Lefty is mocking the Federales for their adoration of his despised half-brother, and he also might be – unconsciously – speaking of how God has let him (Lefty) go so long. Out of kindness? Hell, no! God is ensuring that Lefty bears his burden on earth. As Lefty mocks the Federales, God mocks Lefty.

I just love this song. I have never heard better lyrics, with such layers. Townes didn’t even realize what he wrote – the baffled King composing. (He underwent insulin shock therapy that wiped out much of his memory.)

So, here’s the line that convinced me: “You weren’t your mama’s only boy, but her favorite one, it seems.” Who would say that? No one but the brother left behind. No one but Lefty could write that. I’ll elaborate soon sometime.

Meanwhile, maybe you’d like to give it another listen. It’s been lovingly covered by so many, but I still like this version the best – just Townes, his guitar, an unobtrusive fiddle, and a small appreciative live audience.

Here’s another perfect version by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.

4 thoughts on “Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” is even better than you think.

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