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Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Tennessee

A honky tonk (also called a honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk) is a type of bar with musical entertainment common in the Southern and Southwestern United States. The term has also been applied to various styles of 20th-century American music.



The origin of the term honky tonk is unknown[1]. The earliest source explaining the derivation of the term (spelled "honkatonk") was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers.[2] It states that the term came from the sound of geese, which led an unsuspecting group of cowboys to the flock instead of to the variety show they expected. The OED also states that the first use in print was in 1894[3] in the Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Oklahoma) newspaper, in which it was written "honk-a-tonk". However, honkatonk has been cited from at least 1892 in the Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas),[4] which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth.

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 1889[5]), which made a piano with the decal "Ernest A. Tonk". These upright grand pianos, made in Chicago and New York, were called "Tonk pianos". Some found their way to Tin Pan Alley and may have given rise to the expression of "honky tonk bars". It is unlikely, however, that a Tin Pan Alley piano manufactured in 1889 would influence the vocabulary in either Texas or Indian Territory by 1892 or 1894.

The term honky was, as a term for whites, derived from bohunk and hunky. In the early 1900s, these were derogatory terms for Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants. According to Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Black workers in Chicago meatpacking plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians. "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy wrote of "Negroes and hunkies" in his autobiography.[6]

Honky tonks

Honky tonks were rough establishments, mostly in the Deep South and Southwest, that served alcoholic beverages to 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."[7]

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 honky tonk 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"[8] and describe the entertainment as "variety shows".[9] 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.[10] 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 (street musicians).

As late as 1913, Col. Edwin Emerson, a former Rough Rider commander, hosted a honky-tonk party in New York City.[11] 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 like terms, honky tonks usually serve beer or hard liquor and may have had a bandstand and dance floor. Many may have furnished only a juke box. In the Southeastern U.S., honky tonk gradually replaced the term juke joint for bars primarily 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.

Honky tonk music

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 Johnny Paycheck. 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,"I'm Walking The Floor Over You" by Ernest Tubb[12] his sixth release for Decca,[13] helped establish the honky tonk style and Tubb as one of its foremost practitioners.[14] 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, 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.

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 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.


  1. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
  2. ^ Reno Evening Gazette (Nevada), 3 February 1900, pg. 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".
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ Pierce, Pierce Piano Atlas.
  6. ^ Father of the Blues by William Christopher Handy. 1941 MacMillan. page 214. no ISBN in this edition
  7. ^ Jookin'. Katrina Hazzard-Gordon. Temple University Press. 1990. page 84 ISBN 0-97722-613-X
  8. ^ 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."
  9. ^ 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."
  10. ^ 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."
  11. ^ "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
  12. ^ Sheet music with copyright notice at Solero Music
  13. ^ Ernest Tubb at Country Music Hall of Fame
  14. ^ Go Cat Go! Craig Morrison. 1952. University of Illinois Press. page 28. ISBN 0-252-06538-7


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