Townes Van Zandt

Major with a Minor Flavour: Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”

Townes Van Zandt was a highly respected singer-songwriter whose songs were covered by some of the world’s biggest names — Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris, Merle Haggard and others. There’s a quiet kind of contemplative sound to his music and draws the audience in; they make you listen.

Van Zandt’s most well-known song is “Pancho and Lefty.” It tells the story of Lefty, who leaves home for Mexico and partners up in a life of crime with Pancho. Pancho is eventually turned in by Lefty, and Lefty returns to Ohio, “living in a cheap hotel”, unable to reconnect with family or friends.

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In story songs like this one, it’s the subtleties that make a difference. The subtlety that I think makes the greatest difference in this song is the fact that the song is clearly in a major key (D major in Willie Nelson’s version), but every refrain ends on the relative minor chord: Bm.

Refrain, Pancho and Lefty

On first listen, you expect the final chord to be D — the key of the song. The Bm at the end is a musical surprise, called a deceptive cadence. The Bm in the middle of the refrain doesn’t surprise us, since we already know that Bm (the vi-chord of D major) is a commonly used chord in many D major progressions.

But ending on Bm offers an interesting end to the progression — we need to wait for the next verse to hear a resolution back to D major.

What does it do for music to end a section unexpectedly on a minor chord? It adds a kind of musical flavour that helps to more fully enhance the mood of the music. We pick up a strong sense of nostalgia or perhaps even a touch of despair. In this case, the chord choice supports the lyric and the direction of the story.

The chord choices in “Pancho and Lefty” remind us how important it is to consider chords as a way of making lyrics more powerful.

Testing Your Own Lyric/Chord Choices

One way to test your chords against the lyric of your song is to play through your song with a simple strumming guitar background, and say your lyrics rather than sing them. Listen to the way the chords support (or not) the meaning and mood of your lyric. Does it work?

Playing chords while saying lyrics is a good songwriters’ tool for helping to polish chord choice. It only takes a few moments, and does a good job of exposing moments when perhaps a different chord could be the better choice.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Speaking the lyrics while playing the chords is a technique I used to do and somehow I forgot about it and stopped using it. Thanks for the reminder.

    Now I have the urge to write a song with the relative minor at the end of the refrain.

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