It’s one of the most beloved and recognizable Texas country songs ever recorded, but do you know what inspired Pancho and Lefty? Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song famous with their 1983 duet, but the song had its origins on a 1972 album by the man widely regarded as the greatest Texas songwriter of all-time: Townes Van Zandt.
Pancho and Lefty is a story song, one of the finest of the genre. It tells of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friendship with Lefty, the man who ultimately betrays him. Many of the details in the lyrics mirror the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923. Villa’s dying words? “Don’t let it end like this, tell them I said something great.” Or perhaps not; it’s up for debate.
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On the similarity between the song’s Pancho and the famous revolutionary, Van Zandt once remarked, “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue. It came through me, and it’s a real nice song, and I think, I’ve finally found out what it’s about. I’ve always wondered what it’s about. I kinda always knew it wasn’t about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant ‘Lefty.’ But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. ‘They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose,’ and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated.”
While on tour, Van Zandt actually met the real Pancho and Lefty. Well, okay, not exactly, but it’s still a pretty amusing story. “We got stopped by these two policeman,” Van Zandt recalled. “They said, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter,’ and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful.’ And so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song Pancho and Lefty. You ever heard that song Pancho and Lefty? I wrote that.’ And they looked back around, and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty… so I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys… I hope I never see them again.”
That wasn’t the only time Van Zandt had a brush with the law in connection with the song. Townes wrote the song in a crummy hotel on the outskirts of Denton, the only lodging he could find, because at the time, Billy Graham was staging a huge festival that would be called the “Christian Woodstock.” All the decent hotels in the area were booked solid, which meant Van Zandt was exiled to a lousy room in a place near Denton. Bored, Van Zandt decided to write a song. Three and a half hours later, “‘Pancho and Lefty’ drifted through the window,” he said, “and I wrote it down.”
The next day, Van Zandt and his buddy Daniel Antopolsky drove toward Dallas to play a gig. The streets were full of young Christian hitch-hikers going to see Billy Graham. Townes and Daniel heard sirens behind them; a cop was pulling them over. It meant trouble, because neither man had proper ID.
The cop gave the pair a hard look. The musicians were a sight to see: both long-haired and wild-looking. When the cop asked for their IDs, Daniel had only an expired license. Hilariously, all Townes could show the cop was his face on an album cover. The situation looked grim, then out of nowhere, Daniel Antopolsky employed the one strategy that could save them.
As Townes explained, “Daniel, out of the blue, looks up at the policeman through the window and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you know Jesus?’ And the cop looks at him, hands him back his driver’s license, and says, ‘You boys best be careful.'”
And just like that, the pair of songwriters were saved.