Pancho and Lefty
Western Music
The Lone Writer  

Western Song: Pancho and Lefty

Pancho and Lefty is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, a country music artist. He first recorded the song for this 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt and is considered his most enduring and well-known song. It ranked number 17 in the Top 100 Western Songs of all time chosen by the members of The Western Writers of America.

Pancho and Lefty is a story song about a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friendship with Lefty, the man who betrayed him. Many of the details in the lyrics reflect the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923. In an interview, Van Zandt recalled and realized that he wrote the song, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came out of the blue. It came through him and it’s a real nice song, and he thinks, he finally found out what it’s about. He always wondered what it’s about and knew it wasn’t about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told him that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant ‘Lefty.’ But in his song, Pancho gets hung and Van Zandt presumes they only let him hang around out of kindness, while the real Pancho Villa was assassinated.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard popularized the song with their duet in 1983. A music video for the song directed by Willie’s daughter Lana was released. Will Nelson portrayed the role of Pancho in the music video and Merle Haggard as Lefty. Van Zandt appeared as well in a supporting role.

Popular Recordings

Since the song’s composition and performance by Van Zandt, several artists have covered the song. Some of the most famous and notable versions are recorded by:

  • Townes Van Zandt
  • Emmylou Harris
  • Hoyt Axton
  • Friedlander & Hall
  • Merle Haggard/Willie Nelson
  • Rob Dixon and The Lost Cowboy Band
  • Sally Barker
  • Richard Dobson
  • The Bubbadinos
  • Dick Gaughan
  • Jed Clampit
  • Delbert McClinton
  • Old & In the Gray
  • David Gans
  • Hammerlock

Pancho and Lefty Chart Performance

The song has been included in the top hits of the following charts:

  • US Adult Contemporary (Billboard)
  • US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)
  • Canadian RPM Country Tracks

Listen (Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson Version)

Pancho and Lefty Lyrics

Livin' on the road, my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath is hard as kerosene

Weren't you mamma's only boy?
Her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
Sank to 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

Pancho met his match, you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dyin' words
Oh, 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 lay poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows

All the Federales say
We could have had him any day
We only let him slip away
Out of kindness, I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in cheap hotels
The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold
And so the story ends, we're told

Pancho needs your prayers, it's true
Save a few for Lefty, too
He only did what he had to do
And now he's growin' old

All the Federales say
We could have had him any day
They only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

A few gray Federales say
Could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness, I suppose

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