- Daughter of a Gun
When my father was twenty-two, he wrote number 175 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. My father’s name, Sonny Curtis, is not well-known, but the song, “I Fought the Law,” is. Since Bobby Fuller plucked it from B-side obscurity and made it a hit in 1964, hundreds of artists have covered it, from The Clash to Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash to me, once, in my twenties. At Lonnie’s Western Room karaoke bar in Nashville, I confused the tempo with my father’s blues version—the only version I’d ever heard him play at home—and rightly bombed.
A quick YouTube search unearths another female cover, this one by an all-woman Japanese street punk band unsubtly named Thug Murder. Pierced and clad in the universal stylings of disaffected youth, the women run through concrete city lots hurling the song like a tight fist, a screaming declaration of war—not quite the anthem of resignation I’ve always heard. Other than our two versions, few women have touched it. It’s a masculine song, and men are drawn to it. It’s a violent song, and each man who covers it stamps it with his own brand of violence. Bobby Fuller didn’t rob people with the original version’s “zip gun”—a crude firearm that made its rounds among 1950s teenage gangs—but rather a “six-gun.” The Clash changed the line “I miss my baby and I feel so bad” to “I killed my baby and I feel so bad.”
Five years ago, a historic letterpress company in downtown Nashville designed a poster commemorating my father, to advertise [End Page 35] a show he was performing at the Country Music Hall of Fame. His manager called him after he’d seen the print.
“They put guns on your poster, Sonny,” he told him. “Is that okay with you?” When my father later told me about this conversation, we both laughed, sharing the same unspoken thought. What a silly question.
It’s no accident that my father wrote a song mythologizing guns. He hails from West Texas cotton farmers and cowboys, Dust Bowl survivors and victims of a lawless land. Guns play a crucial role in his family’s mythology, as stories hinge on whether or not the protagonist had a side arm. If I begin unspooling the thread at the spot where the gun mythology was formed in my father’s family, I can see the places where it looped and knotted, spinning on and on, until it reached me.
My Texan grandparents were poor, and though I didn’t inherit much, I did inherit these stories. They are spoken heirlooms, subjective truths hammered out in living rooms after Sunday suppers, one brother’s feelings and observations fused with the thing his sister overheard—memory as alchemy, or sculptures chiseled over time to form the contours of my family’s reality. They have been told to me by my grandfather Arthur, written to me by my father, and corroborated by my father’s brother, my uncle Pete. They are the stories I tell myself as I grapple with my own complicated heritage, to answer the questions of why I sit under that gun poster every night as I eat dinner with my family, and why, though I consider myself a pacifist, it inspires in me a feeling of pride.
I have two main stories to tell. Every mythology, including this one, has a genesis. The first story, the genesis story, does not contain a flood or a birth, but rather a death, a murder. The second story is one of redemption, a righting of wrongs, and the place where the myth took root in the dry West Texas dirt, alongside unending rows of cotton. Through the ages, its branches spread, sprouting habits and convictions that still exist in my family today. And on one branch, if I look closely enough, I can even see a song about a gun. [End Page 36]
The house was unusually quiet when my great-grandfather Will Curtis...