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23 May 2017
Afternoon Sedition

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack

Shotgun Shack of blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

Shotgun shack owned by blues musician John Adam "Sleepy John" Estes

I was listening to "Once In A Lifetime" by the Talking Heads and was again struck by the line, "And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack." Now, I knew what a "shotgun shack" was, but the origins of the phrase intrigued me. And after yesterday's entry on William S. Burroughs creating art with a shotgun, well, it seemed somehow appropriate. First, an explanation of the shack itself:

The shotgun house, a folk architectural form is, prototypically, long and narrow with a gable-ended entrance, one-room wide, and two or three rooms deep. Some say the shotgun house is so named because one can fire a shotgun through the front door with all the shot exiting through the back door without ever having touched a wall.

From Mobile to Huntsville, there are literally thousands of shotgun houses scattered throughout Alabama. It is found in both rural and urban areas of Alabama, often in African-American communities and neighborhoods.

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

Now, this is about the cheapest housing one could build which is why the Heads used it as the metaphor for poverty. (In New York this design is called railroad apartments.) The rural south is riddled with such homes; Elvis Presley was born in one. (The picture below is of the Presley ancestral home refurbished and transported to nicer location.)

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Shotgun shack that musician Elvis Presley was born in

Not all shotgun shacks were made from wood. Some were made from brick or scavenged materials; whatevever the poor owner could beg, borrow, buy, or steal.

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

Southeast shotgun house made from brick

The name makes no sense from a ballistics standpoint: shotgun blasts spread during travel unlike rifle rounds. (Excepting the sabot round, of course. The name of this shell derives from the French "sabot" meaning shoe. A solid shell instead of shot, it packs a serious whallop; this explains why it is commonly used by SWAT teams to blow the hinges off doors.) Now, one could put a choke on the shotgun to keep the spread tight — as one would do when hunting birds — but it still doesn't make any sense. Aside from the Menendez brothers and Steven Segal, who fires shotguns in homes? A rifle would be the more logical firearm to reference if one wanted to talk about straight lines. So why a shotgun?

As with a fair bit of etymology, the origin of "shotgun shack" is likely the corruption of a foreign word:

Most fascinating of all, the name of the house type, "shotgun," may be a corruption of "togun," the African Yoruba word for "house."

"Folk House Has African Roots" by Henry Willett, Alabama Arts, December 1994

So there you have it.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, 'Well... How did I get here?'

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime", Remain in Light, 1980

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