Monday, September 20, 2010

Let's All Honky Tonk Down To The Honky-Tonk

A honky-tonk can be many things, spelled many ways and shortened into one word. When you are referring to a bar with live music in the Southern and Southwestern United States it is also called a honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk. The earliest use of the word (spelled "honkatonk") was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers. It was said that the term came from the honking of geese, which led an unsuspecting group of cowboys to the geese instead of a variety show they expected. The "tonk"part is said to have come from the large upright pianos popular in Tin Pan Alley songwriting emporiums made by William Tonk & Bros.

Another more plausible explanation for honky was that it was a term for white people, derived from bohunk and hunky. In the early 1900s, these were derogatory terms for northern Europeans from Poland and Hungary. Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, wrote that Black workers in Chicago meatpacking plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians.

It seems likely that a honky-tonk was an urban equivalent of the country jook joint, a lower-class bar catering mainly to men.  A lyric from one of the pieces of sheet music above, the 1916 hit song "Down in Honky Tonk Town"explains "It's underneath the ground, where all the fun is found." Both sheet music covers show a raucous dance scene.

Over time, the music that was being played in these places became synonymous with the term for the establishments, though the music changed over time just as the clientele did and so we end up with at least two different styles of music with similar origins.

Musically honky tonks were first piano pieces: Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 record "Honky Tonk Music" and Meade Lux Lewis's big hit "Honky Tonk Train Blues" are two good examples. In the fifties it turns up again as a  twelve-bar blues instrumental "Honky Tonk" by the Bill Doggett Combo that became an early rock and roll hit. Fats Domino was often referred to as a honky tonk piano man so its place in New Orleans musical history is secured. Other honky-tonk songs recorded by New Orleans musicians include Louis Armstrong, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Peter Bocage, Panorama Jazz Band, Tuts Washington, Dave Bartholomew, Storyville Stompers, Nappy Lamare, the Eureka Brass Band and Nicholas Payton.

Another type of music using this term is a country music style which arose from the Thirties "Western Swing" movement pioneered by Bob Wills. His radio and recordings became the standard for modern country and western in the Fifties and beyond. A good example is Hank Williams 1951 hit "Honky Tonk Blues," Louisianian Harry Choates' "Honky-Tonking Days" and Charlie Feather's "Honky Tonk Man."

More modern music fans would also want to point to "Honky Tonk Women," a 1969 hit song by The Rolling Stones. In this song a "honky tonk woman" refers to a dancing girl in a western bar who may work as a prostitute. Wrestling fans would want Roy Wayne Farris mentioned as his ring name was The Honky Tonk Man.

If you think that Honky-tonks are dead you couldn't be further from the truth; recent research has turned up two present day honky-tonks, one near Baton Rouge and one in the middle of Florida. There are probably a lot more and if someone who reads this runs a nice magazine, I'd be glad to go and do some field research and come back with a much bigger piece of the story. Here in New Orleans the original "Down In Honky Tonk Town," has been adopted and adapted to traditional New Orleans jazz so in that way the original song can still be heard though time seems ripe for an updated honk tonk to appear as this term continues into the 21st Century.

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