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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Townes and Pancho and Lefty

Navasota has started a new tradition, of Friday night jam sessions at Blues Alley. All kinds of musicians show up. We even had a tuba player on bass a couple of weeks ago. Amateurs, professionals, and just plain music lovers, all cram into one of Blues Alley's nooks and let the music flow.

One of our regular songs has become Pancho and Lefty, made famous by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. It was recorded by Emmy Lou Harris and others, and probably the most famous song written by the legendary Townes Van Zandt. Van Zandt was a native son of Texas, a descendant of THE Van Zandts of Ft Worth, Van Zandt County, and considered one of the great ones of Texas music. The song was a big hit, and by the way it still emerges in small town jam sessions, it has become an American classic.

Still, nobody seems to know what the song is all about. Van Zandt played it cool when interviewed about it, and offered fairly unsatisfactory explanations. Supposedly, it had come to him, even channeled through him he said and he was reluctant to even accept credit for the lyrics. It was NOT, as most of us assumed, written about Pancho Villa, and he shrugged at the similarities between the allusions in the songs and the life of the famous bandit. He once offered that in fact he found out himself what the song was all about after being pulled over for speeding by cops near Brenham, Texas.

Being detained on the way to a gig, he told them he was a songwriter, you know, the guy that wrote Pancho and Lefty. The cops looked at each other in wonder, as this was their very nicknames given them by the local constabulary. One was Caucasian and the other Hispanic. Ironically, the white one was the “Pancho.” They made him promise that this was all true, then just gave him a ticket for an expired driver’s license. As far as Townes knew, this song was about them…

Yeah right.

It is, whatever it means, a great song, and like a lot of great art, the controversy contributes to its timeless charm. But as you can imagine, I can’t stand everybody not knowing what this song is about…

So outside of Merle Haggard contacting me personally, this IS the correct interpretation…

First of all I have been paying attention to these things a long time… and years ago, perhaps when the song first came out, I heard an interview on the radio… and I’m pretty sure it must have been an interview with Townes Van Zandt, although, I like most people had no idea who he was or who he was going to be.

The guy on the radio said that the song was inspired by an old bluesman he knew, who had served under Pershing in the invasion of Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. He was just a bugler, but never the less had eaten a lot of Villa’s dust, and when it was all over, he had to go home to Ohio and make a future. He had served his country, even though he was in some sympathy with the Villistas. He had done what he had to do. Over the years, as a wandering bluesman, he had more in common with the popular outlaw than differences with him.

The melancholy and the hardships of the two men seemed like an interesting relationship, and the writer, struggling with depression himself, identified with the tragedy of life’s struggles and dashed hopes... The desert is quiet and Cleveland’s cold…

So, for some reason Townes backed off later and refused to give us what we wanted… a decent explanation… leaving us to our own devices… which on a good day, are more than adequate.

1 comment:

Vernita Bridges Hoyt said...

I always enjoy your blog postings! Great story.