A Honky tonk was originally a type of bar common throughout the southern United States, also Honkatonk or Honkey-tonk. Tonks or Tunks were rough establishments that served alcoholic beverages to working class clientele. Honky tonks sometimes also offered dancing to piano players or small bands, and sometimes were also centers of prostitution. In some rougher tonks the prostitutes and their customers would have sex standing up clothed on the dance floor while the music played. Such establishments flourished in less reputable neighborhoods, often outside of the law. 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."
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the word honky tonk is unknown. According to one theory of the origin of the phrase, "Tonks" were originally specifically African American institutions; similar establishments that catered to Whites acquired the name Honky Tonk, from the slang honky, referring to a white person.
Honky tonk music
The first genre of music 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, since the style evolved in response to a humid 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" (recalling the music of his youth, see quotation below), and Meade "Lux" Lewis's big hit "Honky Tonk Train Blues" which Lewis recorded many times from 1927 into the 1950s and was covered by many other musicians from the 1930s on, including Keith Emerson and Oscar Peterson.
The 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 Antoine "Fats" Domino was another legendary honky tonk piano man, whose "Blueberry Hill" and "Walkin' to New Orleans" became hits on the popular music charts.
In the last third of the 20th century the term Honky Tonk started to sometimes be used to refer to what had previously been known as Hillbilly music. More recently it has come to refer primarily to the primary sound in country music, which developed among rural populations relocated to urban environments in the southern US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Originally, it featured the guitar, fiddle, string bass and steel guitar (an importation from Hawaiian folk music). The vocals were originally rough and nasal, like Hank Williams, but later developed a clear and sharp sound with singers like George Jones. Lyrics tended to focus on rural life, with frequently tragic themes of lost love, adultery, loneliness and alcoholism.
During World War 2, honky tonk country was popularized by Ernest Tubb. In the 1950s, though, honky tonk entered its golden age with the massive popularity of Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizell, George Jones and Hank Williams. In the mid to late 1950s, rockabilly, which melded honky tonk country to rock and roll, and the slick country music of the Nashville sound ended honky tonk's initial period of dominance.
In the 1970s, outlaw country music was the most popular genre, and its brand of rough honky tonk gradually turned into the rock-influenced alternative country in the 1990s. 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, a more pop-oriented version of honky tonk became massively popular. It crossed over into the mainstream in the early 1990s with singers like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black. Later in the 90s, the sound of honky tonk became even farther removed from its rough roots with the mainstream success of slicky produced female singers like Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
- "The honk-a-tonk last night was well attended by ball heads, bachelors and leading citizens. ..." The Daily Ardmorite (Oklahoma), February 27, 1894.
- (of a song) "It was moaned by resonant moaners in honky tonks of the southwest." Carl Sandburg, Songbag, 1927.
- "This place ain't no damn honkatonk, stranger," reproved the bar-tender... "Folks get throwed outa here sometimes." C. E. Mulford, in Deputy Sheriff, 1930
- (of a dog) "Its master whose anonymous dust lay with that of his blood and of the progenitors of saxophone players in Harlem honky-tonks." William Faulkner in his novel Hamlet, 1940
- "Honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses." John Steinbeck, Cannery Row 1945
- "These honkey-tonks ran wide open twenty-four hours a day... Their attendance was some of the lowest caliber women in the world and their intake was the revenue from the little, pitiful gambling games they operated." Alan Lomax, quoting Jelly Roll Morton, in his biography Mr. Jelly Roll, 1950.
- "The Wild Side of Life" by Hank Locklin
- "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels
- "I might have known you'd never make a wife
- "You gave up the only one that ever loved you
- "and went back to the wild side of life"
- "It wasnt God who made honky tonk angels
- "As you said in the words of your song
- "Too many times married men think theyre still single
- "That has caused many a good girl to go wrong"
- "Honky Tonk Woman" by The Rolling Stones
- "I met a gin soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis,
- "She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.
- "She had to heave me right across her shoulder
- "'Cause I just can't seem to drink you off my mind.
- "It's the honky tonk women
- "Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues."