The term "honky-tonk" has been applied to various styles of 20th century American music. A honky-tonk (also called a honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk) is the name given to a type of bar that provides country music for entertainment to its patrons. Bars of this kind are common in the Southern and Southwestern regions of the United States, where country music is most popular. Many country music legends, such as Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Ernest Tubb began their careers as amateur musicians in honky-tonks.
The origin of the term honky-tonk is disputed. Honky tonks were rough establishments, with music throughout the United States, 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. Honky tonk originally referred to bawdy variety shows in the West (Oklahoma and Indian Territories and Texas) and to the theaters housing them. The distinction between honky tonks, saloons and dancehalls was often blurred, especially in cowtowns, mining districts, military forts and oilfields of the West.
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. This honky tonk music was an important influence on the formation of the boogie-woogie piano style. 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. 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.
The origin of the term honky-tonk is unknown. 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." The fact that words are capitalized, suggests that the name may have been the proper name for the theater; if so, however, 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.
There are subsequent citations from 1890 in the "Morning News" (Dallas, Texas), 1892 in the Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas), (which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth), and in 1894 in The Daily Ardmoreite in Oklahoma, in which it was written "honk-a-tonk". 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 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.(established 1881), which made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". However, these pianos were not manufactured until 1889, contemporaneous to the first occurrences of honky tonk in print, at which point its use already seems to have been established. On the other hand, records indicate that the Tonk brothers, William and Max, established the Tonk Bros Manufacturing Company in 1873, so such an etymology is possible.
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. 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.
Do you know what a honky tonk is?
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."
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."
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" and describe the entertainment as "variety shows". 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. 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. 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 "Honky Tonk Sound" has a full rhythm section playing a two beat rhythm with a crisp backbeat. Steel guitar and fiddle are the dominant instruments.
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 his sixth release for Decca, helped establish the honky tonk style and Tubb as one of its foremost practitioners. 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.
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 and referenced the reputation of honky tonk bars as centres of prostitution. 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.
- The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
- "Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for cowtown". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
- "Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015. entry for cowtown". Dictionary.com, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
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- "Daily Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas), Jan. 24, 1889.
- "Morning News" (Dallas, Texas), 6 Aug. 1890 "Myself and him set and talked awhile and he got up and said he wanted to go to the honk-a-tonk (variety show)."
- Galveston Daily News (Texas), July 26, 1892, pg. 6. " "FORT WORTH, Tex. (...) A youth named Goodman, who arrived here from Wilbarger county entered Andrews' honkatonk on Fifteenth street and was ordered out on account of his age." (Honky Tonk (not from Tonk pianos), retrieved July 9, 2006)
- The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), February 26, 1894, pg. 2, col. 1. (Oklahoma Historical Society, Microfilm #110). "The honk-a-tonk last night was well attended by ball heads, bachelors and leading citizens. Most of them are inclined to kick themselves this morning for being sold."
- Pierce, Pierce Piano Atlas.
- "Piano Manufacturers New York State 1789 - 1911".
- Honky Tonk World Wide Words
-  WorldCat
-  Memoirs of a Manufacturer
- Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada), 3 February 1900, p. 2, col. 5. "Every child of the range can tell what honkatonk means and where it came from. Away, away back in the very early days, so the story goes, a party of cow punchers rode out from camp at sundown in search of recreation after a day of toil. They headed for a place of amusement, but lost the trail. From far out in the distance there finally came to their ears a 'honk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk-a,' which they mistook for the bass viol. They turned toward the sound, to find alas! a dock [sic] of wild geese. So honkatonk was named—N. Y. Sun".
- "Honky-Tonk" Origin Told." Los Angeles Times. Jul. 28, 1929. p. 16.
- Jookin'. Katrina Hazzard-Gordon. Temple University Press. 1990. page 84 ISBN 0-87722-613-X
- The Daily Oklahoman, Sunday, September 5, 1915, pg. 1., col. 1. "There is scarcely an old-time gambler in the United States who does not remember the Reeves gambling house and 'honkytonk' in Guthrie. ...a stage and rows of curtained boxes, was built as an addition for the purposes of a free-and-easy variety show."
- Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada), 3 February 1900, pg. 2, col. 5. "The programme is made up largely of specialties. Whatever the feeling of a long-suffering public, the honkatonk vocalists never will permit "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" and "Just One Girl" to perish from the earth, and coon songs are sung as May Irwin never did and never will sing them. Always at least one drama is presented, the entire company, vocalists, dancers and all, participating. Among the most popular plays are "The Dalton Boys" and "Mildred, the She-Devil of the Plains," for the old traditions still are respected to a certain extent, though the participation of the audience is no longer solicited."
- Hunter, Trail Drivers of Texas, pg. 832. "I went to Dodge City, the honkatonk town, cleaned up an bought a suit of clothes, and left for San Antonio, reaching home July 1, 1885."
- "COL. EMERSON'S NOVEL PARTY; Rough Rider Veteran Gives 'Old Forty-niners' Honky-Tonk Fandango'." New York Times, New York, N.Y., February 23, 1913. pg. C7
- Popular Music in America: The Beat Goes On. Michael Campbell. Cengage Learning. 2011. page 127
- http://www.freehandmusic.com/search.aspx?all=ernest+tubb&prodid=391479 Sheet music with copyright notice at Solero Music
- http://www.countrymusichalloffame.com/site/inductees.aspx?cid=192 Ernest Tubb at Country Music Hall of Fame
- Go Cat Go! Craig Morrison. 1952. University of Illinois Press. page 28. ISBN 0-252-06538-7
- Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. Ellis Nassour. page 39.
- Steve Appleford (1997), The Rolling Stones: It's Only Rock and Roll: Song by Song, Schirmer Books, p. 88, ISBN 0-02-864899-4.
- Melissa Hope Ditmore, ed. (2006), Encyclopedia of prostitution and sex work, Volume 2, London: Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 407, ISBN 0-313-32970-2.
- Abbott, E.C. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8061-1366-9
- American Dialect Society. Honkatonk (1900, from wild geese?). American Dialect Society, December 27, 2005. (Retrieved July 16, 2006.)
- Boyd, Jean Ann. Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. ISBN 0-292-70860-2
- Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. University Press Of Kansas, 1989 (reprint edition). ISBN 0-7006-0390-5
- Hunter, J. Marvin (editor). Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993 (Reprint of 1925 edition). 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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