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honky-tonk badonkadonk, honky-tonk piano
A honky-tonk also called honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk is both a bar that provides country music for the entertainment of its patrons and the style 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 Jimmie Rodgers, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, and Merle Haggard, began their careers as amateur musicians in honky-tonks The modern-day, honk-tonk atmosphere has continued, with likes of Dwight Yoakam

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 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


  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 History
    • 21 Origins of the establishment
  • 3 Music
  • 4 See also
  • 5 References
  • 6 Bibliography


The origin of the term honky-tonk is unknown1 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"2 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,3page needed 1892 in the Galveston Daily News Galveston, Texas,4 which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth, and in 1894 in The Daily Ardmoreite in Oklahoma,5 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 pianos6page needed established 1881,7 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,89 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 established10

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 newspapers11 The article, however, reads more like a humorous urban or open range legend or fable, so its veracity is questionable


Jimmie Rodgers, one of the earliest honky-tonk innovators, from the 1920s-1930s

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"13

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 establishmentedit

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"14 and describe the entertainment as "variety shows"15 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 EC Abbott referred to honky-tonks in the cowtowns of Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana in the 1870s and 1880s16 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 City17 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, an influential honky-tonker from the 1940s-1950s

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 instruments18

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,19 his sixth release for Decca,20 helped establish the honky-tonk style and Tubb as one of its foremost practitioners21 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" sounds22

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 Williams23 and referred to the reputation of honky-tonk bars as centres of prostitution24 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 alsoedit

  • Dive bar
  • List of public house topics
  • The Honky Tonk Man
  • Country music
  • Honky


  1. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Daily Gazette Fort Worth, Texas, Jan 24, 1889
  3. ^ 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"
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ 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"
  6. ^ Pierce, Pierce Piano Atlas
  7. ^ "Piano Manufacturers New York State 1789–1911" 
  8. ^ 1 WorldCat
  9. ^ 2 Memoirs of a Manufacturer
  10. ^ Honky Tonk World Wide Words
  11. ^ Reno Evening Gazette Nevada, 3 February 1900, p 2, col 5
  12. ^ "Honky-Tonk" Origin Told" Los Angeles Times July 28, 1929 p 16
  13. ^ Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina 1990 Jookin' Temple University Press p 84 ISBN 0-87722-613-X
  14. ^ 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"
  15. ^ 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"
  16. ^ 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"
  17. ^ "Col Emerson's Novel Party; Rough Rider Veteran Gives 'Old Forty-niners' Honky-Tonk Fandango'" New York Times, February 23, 1913 p C7
  18. ^ Campbell, Michael 2011 Popular Music in America: The Beat Goes On Cengage Learning p 127
  19. ^ "OnlineSheetMusic" 
  20. ^ "Page Not Found" 
  21. ^ Morrison, Craig 1952 Go Cat Go! University of Illinois Press p 28 ISBN 0-252-06538-7
  22. ^ Nassour, Ellis Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline p 39
  23. ^ Appleford, Steve 1997, The Rolling Stones: It's Only Rock and Roll: Song by Song, Schirmer Books, p 88, ISBN 0-02-864899-4 
  24. ^ 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, EC 2000 We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher Norman: University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-1366-9
  • American Dialect Society 2005 "Honkatonk 1900, from wild geese" American Dialect Society Retrieved July 16, 2006
  • Boyd, Jean Ann 1998 Jazz of the Southwest: An Oral History of Western Swing Austin: University of Texas Press ISBN 0-292-70860-2
  • Dary, David 1989 Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries University Press of Kansas Reprint ed ISBN 0-7006-0390-5
  • Hunter, J Marvin ed 1993 Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys Austin: University of Texas Press Reprint of 1925 edition ISBN 0-292-73076-4
  • Kienzle, Rich 2003 Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz New York: Routledge ISBN 0-415-94102-4
  • Lake, Stuart 1994 Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal Pocket Reprint ed ISBN 0-671-88537-5
  • Pierce, Bob; Ashley, Larry 1996 Pierce Piano Atlas 10th ed ISBN 0-911138-02-1
  • Shay, Anthony Boys Night Out in Leadville Retrieved July 16, 2006

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