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For other uses, see Honky Tonk (disambiguation).

A honky-tonk (also called honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk) is a bar that provides country music for the entertainment of its patrons. The term also refers to styles of music played in such establishments. Bars of this kind are common in the South and Southwest United States. Many eminent country music artists, 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,[1] originally referring to bawdy variety shows in areas of the old West (Oklahoma, the Indian Territories and Texas) and to the actual theaters showing them. The distinction between honky-tonks, saloons and dance halls is blurred, especially in cowtowns,[2][3][4][5][6][7] mining districts, military forts and oil fields of the West.

The first music genre to be commonly known as honky-tonk 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 in which 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 boogie-woogie piano style. Before World War II, the music industry began to refer to hillbilly music being played from Texas and Oklahoma to the West Coast as "honky-tonk" music. In the 1950s, honky-tonk entered its golden age, with the popularity of Webb Pierce, Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Faron Young, George Jones and Hank Williams.


The origin of the term honky-tonk is unknown.[1] The earliest known use in print is a report in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, dated 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."[8] The capitalization of the term suggests that it may have been the proper name of the theater; it is not known whether the name was taken from a generic use of the term or whether the name of the theater became a generic term for similar establishments.

There are subsequent citations from 1890 in the Dallas Morning News,[9][page needed] 1892 in the Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas),[10] (which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth), and in 1894 in The Daily Ardmoreite in Oklahoma,[11] Early uses of the term in print mostly appear along a corridor roughly coinciding with cattle drive trails extending from Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, into south central Oklahoma, suggest that the term may have been a localism spread by cowboys driving cattle to market. The sound of honky-tonk (or honk-a-tonk) and the types of places that were called honky-tonks suggests that the term may be an onomatopoeic reference to the loud, boisterous music and noise heard at these establishments.

One theory is that the "tonk" portion of the name may have come from the brand name of piano made by William Tonk & Bros., an American manufacturer of large upright pianos[12][page needed] (established 1881),[13] which made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". The Tonk brothers, William and Max, established the Tonk Bros. Manufacturing Company in 1873, so such an etymology is possible,[14][15] however these pianos were not manufactured until 1889, contemporaneous with the first occurrences of honky-tonk in print, at which point the term seems to have already been established.[16]

An early source purporting 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.[17] The article, however, reads more like a humorous urban (or open range) legend or fable, so its veracity is questionable.


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:

Honky-tonks were rough establishments, providing country music in the Deep South and Southwest and serving alcoholic beverages to a working-class clientele. Some honky-tonks offered dancing to music played by pianists or small bands, and some were centers of prostitution. Katrina Hazzard-Gordon wrote 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."[19]

As Chris Smith and Charles McCarron wrote 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[edit]

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"[20] and describe the entertainment as "variety shows".[21] 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 to honky-tonks in the cowtowns of Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana in the 1870s and 1880s.[22] 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, which 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.[23] 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.


Hank Williams

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.[24]

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 in which the pianos were often poorly cared for, tending to be out of tune and having some nonfunctioning keys.

Honky-tonk music influenced the boogie-woogie piano style, as indicated by Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 record "Honky Tonk Music" and Meade Lux Lewis's 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" were hits on the popular music charts.

In the years before World War II, the music industry began to refer to honky-tonk music 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 the singer-songwriters Floyd Tillman and Hank Williams, but later developed a clear and sharp sound, such as that of 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,[25] his sixth release for Decca,[26] helped establish the honky-tonk style and Tubb as one of its foremost practitioners.[27] Tubb, from Crisp, Texas, was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers and fused Western swing, which had been using electric guitars for years, with other "country" sounds.[28]

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 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 with 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[29] and referred to the reputation of honky-tonk bars as centres of prostitution.[30] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. ^ "cowtown". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  3. ^ "cowtown". Dictionary.com, based on Random House Dictionary, Random House, 2015. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  4. ^ "cowtown". WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. S.v. "cowtown". Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  5. ^ "cowtown". Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  6. ^ "cowtown". WordSense.eu Dictionary. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  7. ^ "cowtown". Vocabulary.com. Retrieved April 16, 2015. 
  8. ^ Daily Gazette (Fort Worth, Texas), Jan. 24, 1889.
  9. ^ 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)."
  10. ^ Galveston Daily News, July 26, 1892, p. 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)
  11. ^ The Daily Ardmoreite (Oklahoma), February 26, 1894, p. 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."
  12. ^ Pierce, Pierce Piano Atlas.
  13. ^ "Piano Manufacturers New York State 1789–1911". 
  14. ^ [1] WorldCat
  15. ^ [2] Memoirs of a Manufacturer
  16. ^ Honky Tonk World Wide Words
  17. ^ Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada), 3 February 1900, p. 2, col. 5.
  18. ^ "Honky-Tonk" Origin Told." Los Angeles Times. July 28, 1929. p. 16.
  19. ^ Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina (1990). Jookin'. Temple University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-87722-613-X.
  20. ^ The Daily Oklahoman, Sunday, September 5, 1915, p. 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."
  21. ^ 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."
  22. ^ Hunter, Trail Drivers of Texas, p. 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."
  23. ^ "Col. Emerson's Novel Party; Rough Rider Veteran Gives 'Old Forty-niners' Honky-Tonk Fandango'." New York Times, February 23, 1913. p. C7
  24. ^ Campbell, Michael (2011). Popular Music in America: The Beat Goes On. Cengage Learning. p. 127.
  25. ^ "OnlineSheetMusic". 
  26. ^ "Page Not Found". 
  27. ^ Morrison, Craig (1952). Go Cat Go! University of Illinois Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-252-06538-7.
  28. ^ Nassour, Ellis. Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. p. 39.
  29. ^ Appleford, Steve (1997), The Rolling Stones: It's Only Rock and Roll: Song by Song, Schirmer Books, p. 88, ISBN 0-02-864899-4 .
  30. ^ Melissa Hope Ditmore, ed. (2006), Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 2, London: Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 407, ISBN 0-313-32970-2 .