Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho And Lefty

Hearing Pancho and Lefty was the first time I remember recognizing a particular musical trick and wanting to emulate it. (I used it in the song Dear Rebecca). The trick is like a trap door. You start a song (or verse) on the chord a key is named after and end it on that chord’s related minor. In the Key of C, that would be starting on C and ending on Am.

Music theory people call this a deceptive cadence. The song saunters along happily in a major key, then, whoops! You’ve landed in the sadness of minor. It’s worth noting that songs that do this often use “Axis of Awesome” chords, focusing mainly on the three major chords until the song gets to its booby trap. James Blunt’s “Your Beautiful” is another good prototype of this trick. (There are plenty of others).  

But we’re talking about Pancho and Lefty. It uses the Axis of Awesome chords (or  I IV V and vi if you prefer numbers). I’m going to walk through the entire progression, but the trick is that switch to the related minor chord as the final chord of the verse. In the case of Pancho and Lefty, the Am replaces the C major.  Here we go! 

The first line starts with just two chords, C going to G. The chords are spread evenly across four measures like this:

The following line is four measures again but puts all three major chords from the Axis of Awesome over that space. F uses two measures, the C and G each use a measure:

So far, Townes has a pattern going where each line ends with a G chord. He’ll switch that up in the next line. The next line starts with F for two measures again, goes to C for a measure, and ends the F chord. It’s a little surprise.  

The following line opens on Am, then goes back to good ‘ol familiar F C G, but he changes something. Can you spot it? 

Townes cuts one of the measures down to just two beats and gives the F and C chords just one beat each. 

Then comes the final line. Our ears expect the last line of a song to bring us back to the chord that starts the song, and that’s where the trick comes in. Instead of ending on C, the verse ends on Am. I love how this sounds. It can create a real feeling of sadness and yearning. 


The Prompt:

Photo by Frederic Lewis. Find out more about this art here.

New to Chord Flow? 

Here’s an intro: Chord Flow, Playing with the Basics
Here’s how it works in the Key of C: Chord Flow in the Key of C
Chord substitution with Chord Flow: ACEing Chord Flow Substitution

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