Sometimes used as a term to indicate a place to have a good time and at other times a way to indicate a den of iniquity, the honky tonk has been with us for over a century and will probably be with us for quite a few more years.
The first references to a honky tonk appear to have been around the turn of the 20th century, and involved entertainment palaces in the southern and southwestern United States. Generally, the term "honky tonk" was applied to establishments that favored the burlesque traveling shows that worked the vaudeville circuit.
One distinguishing trait of the clubs that earned the honky tonk moniker was that they catered specifically to the Caucasian working man. Generally, persons who advocated a very strict code of conduct tended to disparage the shows and the persons who attended them. Quite a bit of time and effort went into decrying the immoral acts that went on in honky tonks, citing them as the root cause for every social ill that one can imagine.
In reality, honky-tonks in the early 20th century were often the only chance that lower and middle class workers had to see anything resembling a professional state show. A typical evening at the tonks would feature singers and dancers who had toured the nation, with a comedy act thrown in for good measure. While alcohol was served, most honky tonks employed bouncers to keep a semblance of order during the shows. In fact, alcohol was often cited as the reason for so much resentment about the operation of a honky tonk in the community, with implications of having “painted ladies” who were “kind to gentlemen for a price” being a close second.
As vaudeville began to die out, honky tonk took on a new persona, in the form of clubs that featured ragtime and jazz performers, many of them African American. For a number of promising and talented African Americans, the honky tonk presented the only viable way to make money with music. In time, clubs that catered to ragtime and jazz and drew both white and black crowds became known as the “chitlin” circuit, so named for a delicacy unique to the South and Southwest and enjoyed by poor to middle-class citizens.
By the 1930’s, some honky tonk clubs were beginning to feature a new form of music, referred to as country and western. Emerging country artists toured extensively to small clubs all over the country, establishing the concept of a honky tonk as we know it today. Generally, the person on the street in our present time will think of country singers, bars, pool tables, lots of beer and line dancing when the term honky tonk is brought up. Many of these honky tonk clubs wear the name as a badge of pride, stressing that people come to their clubs to hang out with friends, meet new people and have a lot of fun after working hard all day. And what better place to let your hair down than at a honky tonk?