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Honky tonk music

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Honky tonk music

For other uses, see Honky Tonk (disambiguation).

A honky-tonk (also called a honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk) is a type of bar that provides musical entertainment (usually country music) to its patrons. Bars of this kind are common in the Southern and Southwestern United States.

The term "honky-tonk" has also been applied to various styles of 20th-century American music.


The origin of the term honky tonk is unknown.[1] The earliest-known printed use of the word is a report in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, January 24, 1889 that a, "petition to the council is being circulated for signatures, asking that the Honky Tonk theater on Main Street be reopened."[2] The fact that words are capitalized, suggests that the name may have been the proper name for the theater. It is not known whether the proper name was taken from a generic use of the word or whether the proper name of the theater became a generic term for similar establishments. It is interesting, however, that Fort Worth is currently the home of the self-styled "World's Largest Honky Tonk".[3]

The fact that the early uses of the word in print mostly appear along a corridor roughly coinciding with cattle drive trails extending from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas and into South-Central Oklahoma, suggest that the origin of the word may have been a localism spread by cowboys driving cattle to market. The OED states that the first use in print was in 1894[4] in the Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Oklahoma) newspaper, in which it was written "honk-a-tonk". However, the terms honky tonk, honk-a-tonk, and honkatonk have been cited from at least 1889 in the "Daily Gazette" (Fort Worth, Texas),[5] from 1890 in the "Morning News" (Dallas, Texas),[6] and 1892 in the Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas),[7] which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth. Whether the word came from the name of a theater in Fort Worth or the theater in Fort Worth took its name from a generic term, the sound of the word honky tonk (or honk-a-tonk) and the types of places that were called honky tonks suggests that the word may be an onomatopoeic reference to the loud or boisterous music and noise heard at a honky tonk.

One theory is that the "tonk" portion of the name may have come from a brand name of piano. One American manufacturer of large upright pianos was the firm of William Tonk & Bros.[8](established 1881),[9] which made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". However, these pianos were not manufactured until 1889, after the first occurrences of honky tonk in print.[10] However, as records indicate that the Tonk brothers, William and Max, established the Tonk Bros Manufacturing Company in 1873, such an etymology is possible.[11];[12]

An early source that purported to explain the derivation of the term (spelled "honkatonk") was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers.[13] The article, however, reads more like a humorous urban (or open range) legend or fable, so its veracity may be questionable. The article suggests that an unsuspecting group of cowboys looking for recreation mistook the honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a sound from a flock of geese for the sound of a bass viol, after which the name stuck.


An article in the Los Angeles Times of July 28, 1929, with the headline, "Honky-Tonk" Origin Told," which was probably in response to the Sophie Tucker movie musical, Honky Tonk (1929), reads:

"Do you know what a honky tonk is?

Seafaring men of a few years ago knew very well, as the honky-tonks of San Francisco's Barbary Coast constituted perhaps the most vivid spots in their generally uneventful lives.

The name originated on the Barbary Coast and was applied to the low "dives" which formed so great a part of this notorious district. In these establishments, which were often of enormous size, much liquor was dispensed at the tables which crowded the floor, and entertainment of doubtful quality was given on a stage at one end of the room.

The honky tonk, as a matter of fact, was the predecessor of the present-day cabaret or night club, the principal differences being that the prices were lower and that the former establishment made no pretense of "class."[14]

Honky tonks were rough establishments, with country music in the Deep South and Southwest, that served alcoholic beverages to a working class clientele. Honky tonks sometimes also offered dancing to piano players or small bands, and were sometimes also centers of prostitution. Katrina Hazzard-Gordon writes that the honky-tonk was "the first urban manifestation of the jook", and that "the name itself became synonymous with a style of music. Related to the classic blues in tonal structure, honky-tonk has a tempo that is slightly stepped up. It is rhythmically suited for many African-American dance."[15]

As Chris Smith and Charles McCarron noted in their 1916 hit song "Down in Honky Tonk Town", "It's underneath the ground, where all the fun is found."

Origins of the establishment

Although the derivation of the term is unknown, honky tonk originally referred to bawdy variety shows in the West (Oklahoma and Indian Territories and Texas) and to the theaters housing them. The earliest mention of them in print refers to them as "variety theaters"[16] and describe the entertainment as "variety shows".[17] The theaters often had an attached gambling house and always a bar.

In recollections long after the frontiers closed, writers such as Wyatt Earp and E.C. Abbott referred often to honky tonks in the cowtowns of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, etc. of the 1870s and 1880s.[18] Their recollections contain lurid accounts of the women and violence accompanying the shows. However, in contemporary accounts these were nearly always called hurdy gurdy shows, possibly derived from the term hurdy gurdy that was sometimes mistakenly applied to a small, portable barrel organ that was frequently played by organ grinders and buskers.

As late as 1913, Col. Edwin Emerson, a former Rough Rider commander, hosted a honky-tonk party in New York City.[19] The Rough Riders were recruited from the ranches of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Indian Territories, so the term was still in popular use during the Spanish American War.


The distinction between honky tonks, saloons and dancehalls was often blurred, especially in cowtowns, mining districts, military forts and oilfields of the West. As variety theaters and dancehalls disappeared, honky tonk eventually became associated mainly with lower-class bars catering to men. Synonymous with beer joint and similar terms, honky tonks usually serve beer or hard liquor and may have had a bandstand and dance floor. Many may have only a juke box. In the Southeastern US, honky tonk gradually replaced the term juke joint for bars oriented towards blues and jazz. As Western swing slowly became accepted in Nashville, Southeastern bars playing Western swing and Western swing-influenced country music were also called honky tonks.


The "Honky Tonk Sound" has a full rhythm playing a two beat rhythm with a crisp backbeat. Steel guitar and fiddle are the dominant instruments.[20]

The first music genre to be commonly known as honky tonk music was a style of piano playing related to ragtime, but emphasizing rhythm more than melody or harmony; the style evolved in response to an environment where the pianos were often poorly cared for, tending to be out of tune and having some nonfunctioning keys.

Such honky tonk music was an important influence on the formation of the boogie-woogie piano style, as indicated by Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 record "Honky Tonk Music" and Meade Lux Lewis's big hit "Honky Tonk Train Blues." Lewis recorded the latter many times from 1927 into the 1950s, and the song was covered by many other musicians, including Oscar Peterson.

The twelve-bar blues instrumental "Honky Tonk" by the Bill Doggett Combo, with a sinuous saxophone line and driving, slow beat, was an early rock and roll hit. New Orleans native Fats Domino was another honky tonk piano man, whose "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin' to New Orleans" became hits on the popular music charts.

During the pre–World War II years, the music industry began to refer to honky tonk music being played from Texas and Oklahoma to the West Coast as hillbilly music. More recently, the term has come to refer to the primary sound in country music, developing in Nashville as Western swing became accepted there. Originally, it featured the guitar, fiddle, string bass, and steel guitar (imported from Hawaiian folk music). The vocals were originally rough and nasal, as exemplified by singer-songwriters Floyd Tillman and Hank Williams, but later developed a clear and sharp sound, such as that of singers George Jones and Faron Young. Lyrics tended to focus on working-class life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity.

Copyrighted and released in 1941, "Walking the Floor Over You" by Ernest Tubb[21] his sixth release for Decca,[22] helped establish the honky tonk style and Tubb as one of its foremost practitioners.[23] Hailing from Crisp, Texas, Tubb was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers and fused Western swing, which had been using electric guitars for years, with other "country" sounds.[24]

He took the sound to Nashville, where he was the first musician to play electric guitar on Grand Ole Opry. In the 1950s, honky tonk entered its golden age, with the massive popularity of Webb Pierce, Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, Faron Young, George Jones, and Hank Williams. In the mid- to late-1950s, rockabilly (which melded honky tonk country to rhythm and blues) and the slick country music of the Nashville sound ended honky tonk's initial period of dominance.

The Rolling Stones number one single and gold record “Honky Tonk Women” (1969) was based on the sound of 1940s honky tonk artists like Hank Williams[25] and referenced the reputation of honky tonk bars as centres of prostitution.[26] In the 1970s, outlaw country's brand of rough honky tonk was represented by artists such as Gary Stewart, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe, and Billy Joe Shaver. During the 1980s, a revival of slicker honky tonk took over the charts, beginning with Dwight Yoakam (and his cover of Johnny Horton's "Honky Tonk Man"), and George Strait in the middle of the decade. This more pop-oriented version of honky tonk crossed over into the mainstream in the early 1990s, with singers such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black.

See also



  • Abbott, E.C. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. ISBN 0-8061-1366-9
  • American Dialect Society. American Dialect Society, December 27, 2005. (Retrieved July 16, 2006.)
  • Boyd, Jean Ann. Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing. ISBN 0-292-70860-2
  • Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. ISBN 0-7006-0390-5
  • Hunter, J. Marvin (editor). Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys. ISBN 0-292-73076-4
  • Kienzle, Rich. Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz. New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0-415-94102-4
  • Lake, Stuart. Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Pocket, 1994 (reprint edition). ISBN 0-671-88537-5
  • Pierce, Bob; Larry Ashley. Pierce Piano Atlas. Pierce Piano Atlas; 10th edition (June 1996). ISBN 0-911138-02-1
  • Shay, Anthony. Boys Night Out in Leadville. (Retrieved July 16, 2006.)
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