Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Writer's Block, Part 3: Townes Van Zandt

By now you've probably heard Steve Earle's legendary statement and Townes' reply:

"Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." — Steve Earle.

"I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table." — Townes Van Zandt.
So what is that basis for all the love? Let's examine the song Pancho And Lefty, which is Van Zandt's most famous composition and a fine piece of songwriting:

Townes Van Zandt – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

It's a story about two outlaws, once compatriots, who meet separate fates. Pancho is shot (alone) down in Mexico while Lefty continues to reside (alone) relocated to Ohio. The unstated implication of the narrative is that Lefty went north after betraying Pancho to the Federales. The magic of the song is the way Van Zandt gets the listener to sympathize with Lefty, the lonely snitch.

With an economy of language in four short verses, we get revealing glimpses of Lefty's relationship with his family, Lefty's personaltity, Lefty's relationship with Pancho, and the evolving relationships between the outlaws, the Federales, and eternity. [Read the AMG song review: here.]

The Lyrics:

Livin' on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
And 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

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Well, Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
And nobody heard his dyin' words
Ah but that's the way it goes

All the Federales say
Could of had him any day
Only let him hang around
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 laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain't nobody knows

All the Federales say
Could of had him any day
Only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell
And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
So the story end's, we're told
Pancho needs your prayer's it's true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
And now he's growin' old

A few gray Federales say
Could have had him any day
Only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Here are some of the things I like about Townes' writing:

(1) The descriptive language is evocative and strong without being cliche.
"You wear your skin like iron."

"Your breath's as hard as kerosene."

"His horse was fast as polished steel."

(2) Poignant lines, throughout.
"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."

"Nobody heard his dyin' words, but that's the way it goes."

"Lefty, he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to."

"The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio."

"Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell And Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel."

"Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too. He just did what he had to do."

(3) Interesting verbs.
"Sank into your dreams." (suggesting a downward turn)

"Wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel" (as opposed to "see," which you expect, but which would have been weaker.)

"Lefty split for Ohio"

(4) Short, memorable lines that sum up the entire story, economically.
"The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold."

And my favorite line in the song: "The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth." Wow! Good stuff.

(5) The story unfolds indirectly, rather than hitting you over the head.
Never is there any explicit mention of any association between Pancho and Lefty, but we can see the relationship and Lefty's personality based on the fact that he used to sing the blues all night (probably with Pancho) but can't anymore (because of guilt/loneliness).

We learn about the betrayal this way: "The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go there ain't nobody knows."

The passage of time is shown by the insertion of the word "gray" into the last chorus about the Federales.

(6) No extra syllables.
The song tells its story but still flows from verse to verse smoothly. That might be the best attribute of Townes' songwriting in general.

That's a lot of great stuff going on in one short song.

Here are two popular cover versions to enjoy:

Emmylou Harris – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – Pancho And Lefty (buy album).

P.S. If your i-pod says "Poncho and Lefty," change the "O" to an "A".
A poncho is a raincoat.


Boyhowdy said...

GREAT post. A strong analysis of one of my favorite TvZ songs -- both song and breakdown speak well to the strength of TvZ's songwriting overall. I posted Jeffrey Foucault version of TvZ's Nothin' a week or so ago, and it's been very popular.

I used to have a pratically infinite set of covers of Pancho and Lefty, but lost them to an iPod theft a few years back. Pity, that -- the solo Evan Dando version I had was surprisingly good, and I haven't seen it since.

Keller Williams does a good one live, though: here's his version from June 06 Acoustic Planet tour:

Keller Williams, Pancho and Lefty

Feel free to bump it up to the post if you like.

pondscum said...

I assume you are (all) aware that TVZ appears as one of the Federales in the Nelson/Haggard video. look closely

jwroblewski said...

Great post, as usual. While I don't agree that Townes is as great as Bob Dylan, he certainly is one of the best ever, and deserves a lot more recognition.

My favorites:
Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel
Rex's Blues (from the Nashville Sessions record)

I'm going to listen to him all day tomorrow now. Thanks!

Paul said...

Joe: I don't think anybody is as great as Bob Dylan-not even Hank himself. Top artist of all time in my book.

I love Fare Thee Well, Miss Carousel too and it comes from my favorite TVZ album. Kind of has a Dylan influence, I'd say.

Bowhowdy: I got that foucault stuff from your post when you put it up. I like Lodi and the Peter Case cover too. I'll leave the mp3 in the comments as an enticement/reward for those who read them! Thanks.

Pondscum: Thanks for adding that cool trivia.

Bobby J Layne said...

I can’t say that Poncho and Lefty is in my top ten Townes although it is a great song and I don’t dislike anything the man ever did.
But...I believe that Townes could have phoned in this or wrote it in his sleep as he did Out my window, don’t think it’s the quintessential Townes by far. I have to look at Tecumseh Valley first. It’s also the first tune ever heard from Townes and was immediately in tears.
High low and in between is another fav, tells it from a side of life most people can’t even fathom and how he could, well that’s beyond me. The Snake song, such a vile and evil tune seemingly without much effort on his part, reminds me of the stones play with fire. Great for letting people know to f*** off in a nice way.
I really have no one favorite TVZ song like I have no favorite Beatles song, although Dear Prudence is top 5 for sure. I hate to pigeon hole myself but I guess I already have by being so critical of Poncho, so I will elect my favorite TVZ as…………………drum roll please,
I guess I will go with For The Sake Of the Song.

I am sure ill change my mind next week. O well.

Bobby Joe

Paul said...

If you can "phone in" a song like this, then you are a songwriting God. (And it's not my favorite TVZ song either.)

boyhowdy said...

Paul: glad to hear you liked the Foucault post. I've got a TVZ cover post on tap for the next few weeks; think you'll like that, too.

cato said...

This was a great post. Emmylou's version was the one that really did it for me with this song.
I heard Willie's first.
It's a great one no matter who's singin it, but has anyone else heard insane similarities between this and "candle in the wind"?
It always weirds me out.

Ramone666 said...

Wonderful post! Want me to send you a live Dylan cover of Pancho & Lefty? Just gimme a shout ok?

Liberty said...

Here is a great version of Gillian Welch playing this great song...

Paul said...

Hey liberty, thanks for the Gillian Welch song. Here's a direct link:

Gillian Welch - Pancho & Lefty (mp3)

For those of you who wish to test cato's Candle in the Wind theory, here's a link to that song:

Elton John - Candle In The Wind (mp3)

I can hear it. Weird.

(By the way, Pancho & Lefty came two years earlier.)

Anonymous said...

Hah! I heard the Candle similarity myself and went searching to see if anyone was talking about it. Found this page. Nice to know I wasn't the only one.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I'm here for the same reason!