Law in Contemporary Society

ColinHenderson's Journal

3/30/2020 I was really struck by the connection between "Cannibalism and the Common Law" and "Pancho and Lefty" (one of my favorite songs), which you brought up during our online class discussion last week. I decided to revisit the song a few times and look into it a bit further, given Van Zandt's poetic and rather open-ended style. It turns out that my interpretation of the story has been "off" all along. I had always thought that Lefty himself had killed Pancho in some sort of a gunfight, or that at the very least Van Zandt had intended to leave the specifics of Pancho's death somewhat ambiguous but that Lefty had been integrally involved. However, Van Zandt himself that Pancho had been hanged (presumably by the federales after Lefty sold him out): . I'm particularly bummed that I missed the wordplay on "hang around" in the first refrain.

I think it's entirely possible that Van Zandt did intend for the song to be ambiguous or to have multiple meanings regardless of his interview. He himself claims that he wrote the ostensibly song about Pancho Villa, but BEFORE he had heard of him! The song has a mythic quality evocative of the oral tradition of story-telling, not unlike the sea chanties that Simpson references throughout Cannibalism and the Common Law. Maybe Van Zandt is nurturing this perception of the song.

What does this mean for my interpretation of the song? It doesn't really put Pancho in a new light. It does change my perception of the federales though, and to a lesser extent Lefty. I had initially interpreted the federales as being helpless to deal with the legal problems presented by Pancho and Lefty, much like how the courts are helpless to enforce the law of the sea regardless of the abstract moralizing in their written opinions. I think this interpretation still largely holds, but it also casts them as something a little bit more sinister (like perhaps the devious Baron Huddleston, or powers that be who refuse to do what is necessary to make the boating industry safer, or even the members of the seafaring community who pass down the moral code of survival situations knowing fully well that it is always "the boy" who draws the shortest lot). And maybe Lefty is a lot more like Brooks than I had thought before - someone lacking the cinematic heroism of a Pancho (Dudley) like character who gets used as a pawn in a larger game while looking out for themselves, and ends up on the short side of hundreds of poems throughout history for it. It's a remarkable feat that Van Zandt is able to build out the complex nature of all of these characters in such a short song.

A few takeaways that I get from both the song and the book. We are all "the boy" or the young person about to seek salvation on the road at some point. Life asks us all to do the impossible, and for that we deserve prayers and empathy. What sailors and cowboys and judges do best is write sea chanties and frontier ballads and legal opinions. The rest of the time, we're pretty much doing what we have to do and growing old.

-- LilianKlatskin - 16 Apr 2020



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r2 - 16 Apr 2020 - 01:48:16 - LilianKlatskin
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