Songwriting Basics Section II – Analysis 18: Pancho and Lefty

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

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No honour among thieves …

Pancho and Lefty by Texan songwriter Townes van Zandt townes.gif tells the tale of two Mexican outlaws, one of whom, Pancho,  is captured and killed by the Federales – the Policía Federal, while the other escapes to the USA, and grows old in Cleveland, Ohio.

The clear implication of the song is that the federales wanted Pancho more than they did Lefty. They captured Lefty, and pressured him into betraying his partner. Now Lefty, old and poor, lives in a cheap hotel, prey to the cold and his conscience.

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That’s the way it goes …bandido.gif

V1 tells of Lefty’s childhood dreams of being a dashing outlaw, and how those dreams went sour.

V2 has Pancho actually living out the dreams that Lefty had – his horse is “fast as polished steel” and he flaunts his gun so that all know he is an outlaw. Nevertheless, he is caught and killed without even the chance to have his last words recorded.

V3 shows Lefty in exile in the North. The memory of his betrayal has robbed him of any capacity for joy. No-one knows where he got the money from to escape, but he knows, and he can’t make himself forget.

V4 Despite Pancho’s ignominious end, his life has been turned into a legend that has gained him much sympathy. Meanwhile, Lefty lives alone, poor, and cold. The whole world remembers Pancho, but Lefty is forgotten. The singer asks that we pray for Lefty as well as Pancho, since nobody in the story has won.

The Chorus shows the federales boasting that they could have captured Pancho at any time. The writer sarcastically remarks that “they only let him hang around out of kindness, I suppose.”

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Lend an ear and an eye …

eye.gif Pancho and Lefty

© 1972 Townes van Zandt

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Regular as clockwork … clock.gif

  • Ll 1 – 7 have 4 stresses
  • L8 has 3

This is true throughout except for  V1L6 which has 3 stresses

These, with minor variations,  are divided thus:

  • L1 – 7trochee (Dum-dah)
  • L8 3trochee 

  • Pan-cho | was a | ban-dit | boys, his | 
  • horse was | fast as | pol-ished | steel [he] |
  • wore his | gun  out- | –side his | pants for |
  • all the | hon-est | world to | feel … |
  • Pan-cho | met his | match you | know on [the] |
  • des-erts | down in | Mex-ic- |-co, no- |
  • bod-y | heard his | dy-ing | words, [but] |
  • that’s the | way it | goes … | 

The Chorus goes

  • Ll 1 – 3 – 4trochee
  • L4 – 1anapest (dah-dah-DUM), 2iamb
  • All the | fed-er- | –al-es | say they |
  • could have | had him | an-y | day, they |
  • on-ly | let him | hang a- | –round … |
  • out of kind– | -ness | sup-pose |

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The rhymes ain’t regular …

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Although the stress pattern  and metre hang together pretty well, the end-rhymes vary throughout.

  • V1 goes A  B  C  B  D  B  E  B 
    “friend” “clean” “iron” “kerosene” “boy” “seems” “goodbye” “dreams”

  • V2 has A  B  C  B  D  D  E  D
    “boys” “steel” “pants” “feel
    know” “Mexico” “words” “goes

  • V3 goes A  A  B  B  C  C  C  C
    “blues” “to”
    “south” “mouth”
    “low” “Ohio” “go” “knows”

  • V4 has A  A  B  B  C  C  C  B
    “fell” “hotel”
    cold” “told
    “true” “to” “do”
    old

  • The Chorus goes A  A  B  C
    “say” “day”
    “around”
    “suppose”

The final “suppose” of the Chorus echoes the “-o-” rhymes of the final lines of the verseswhich helps tie the song together a bit more.

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The key to living on the road …

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If we disregard the first-fret capo (and, let’s face it, who wants to think about C#?), then the whole song flits between C major and the closely related A Aeolian aka A natural minor (natural because it contains no G# – unlike A minor with its typical E7 chord).

  • C D E F G A B
  • A B C D E F G

If you look back through my posts, you’ll recall that this is a very common combination in traditional music, so Townes is being mainstream folky on the chords.

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What does the judge think? … jdg.gif

There’s a nice regular stress pattern, and the metre, although it does vary, doesn’t vary much.

The key/mode combination is easily recognisable as working within the folk tradition, and so would be easily accepted by its target country/folk audience.

The story is great, and the lyric contains some brilliant images, e.g.

  • “skin like iron”
  • “breath like kerosene”
  • “the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth”

The main problematic area is the ever-changing rhyme-pattern

When we weigh all these factors on the scales, and factor in, as we must, the proven success of the song (it’s been recorded by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, and Hoyt Axton amongst others), then Pancho and Lefty has to be judged a winner – just a bit of a flawed one!

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Next time, we’ll look at another one of my mousterpieces to see if I obey my own recommendations!

 

 

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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