Today’s birthday boy is Willie Nelson, 81 years old. Willie’s been around forever, and I can remember him vaguely from the Seventies, with that red hair and beard. Weren’t many Country stars around then with beards, that’s for sure. And a long hair! Nelson pissed ‘em off, alright.
I didn’t get around to really listening to him until his great album of 1993, Across the Borderline, which features several duets: one, in particular, is “Heartland,” with Bob Dylan, about farmers losing their land, a theme that was the cause for Farm Aid, which Willie set up after a comment from Dylan at Live Aid.
Today’s song is another duet by them from around that time — Willie’s 60th birthday — and it's Townes Van Zandt’s best-known song, “Pancho and Lefty,” which he recorded in 1972. I first knew this song around 1994 or so, in the 1983 version Nelson recorded with Merle Haggard, but that version suffers a bit from the studio work of that time, particularly the back-up singers. I like this version, on TV, better, even though Dylan upstages Nelson a bit.
The song is a great short story about friendship and betrayal, where an outlaw Pancho, is eventually captured and killed by Mexican federales. His friend Lefty is strongly suspected, by the singer, of betraying him, though he’s very coy about it. “The day they laid poor Pancho low / Lefty split for Ohio / And where he got the bread to go / There ain’t nobody knows.” Kinda like Lefty enters the witness protection program.
Pancho is introduced, at the start of the song, with an apostrophe directed straight at him, or possibly at the singer himself: “Living on the road, my friend / Is going to keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as 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.” After that intro we get the story of Pancho and Lefty. The opening is a little out of place but I’ve always liked that part about mama and leaving her and sinking into dreams. The dreams could be the story of the outlaws, dreamed up as a consoling fiction of sorts. Another possibility is that Lefty is the singer of the song and starts the song with an anachronistic address to Pancho before telling the story in the third person. Doing so lets the full pathos of his evocation of Lefty seem more objective, though the sorrow is clearly there.
“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.” Gray like the federales who recall that they let Pancho “go so long” “out of kindness, I suppose.” The irony in that line suggests that they had no way of apprehending Pancho without Lefty’s timely intervention.
One of the best figures Van Zandt comes up with is: “The poets tell how Pancho fell / Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel / The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold / And so the story ends we’re told.” That back and forth between the poetic demise of Pancho—getting taken down as an outlaw—and the sad terms of Lefty’s survival is what the song aims to encapsulate. It seems, perhaps, inspired by “that coward Robert Ford” who done in Jesse James. The idea of the no-account, shiftless sidekick undoing the famed outlaw hero is not unfamiliar. Van Zandt gives it an unusually full account in a very compressed narrative.
Willie’s handling of the vocal has his easy way with phrasing, that is always precise, and he’s able to make that opening sound forlorn and grand at once. Then Dylan takes the description of Pancho, which sounds a bit like his own “John Wesley Harding” in its understatement; listen to how he says “nobody heard his dy-in’-words.”
Nelson tells the tale with a kind of shrugging delivery that he uses so well, even as we hang on his every word: Lefty can’t sing the blues like he used to, as the dust that Pancho bit “down south” chokes him—a very understated expression of Lefty’s guilty conscience. In the end, with the prayers for Lefty and the sense that he did what he had to do, we could say the song pleads for him, but, if so, with a certain grim sense of the price he’s paid. And those old gray federales make the whole tale seem something misty with time, a legendary career and fall told by two graying old songsters, Willie and Bobby, or “the Red-Headed Stranger” and “Lucky.”
|Dylan, Mike Campbell, Willie, Tom Petty, Farm Aid|