Long before Billy Bob’s Texas declared itself the “world’s largest honky tonk” in 1981, . . .
long before Hank Williams first recorded his classic song “Honky-Tonkin’” on February 13, 1947, . . .
long before Sophie Tucker starred in the movie Honky Tonk in 1929, . . .
even long before Chris Smith and Charles McCarron wrote the song “Down in Honky Tonk Town” (“It’s underneath the ground, where all the fun is found”) in 1916, there were honky-tonks.
But where did that funny little word come from? What was its original meaning?
Determining the origin of words is notoriously difficult. The Oxford English Dictionary says the first use of the word—as honk-a-tonk—was in 1894 in the Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Sorry, OED. Close but no buttered scone because . . .
in 1893 the Wichita Daily Eagle reported in a roundup of Oklahoma news that “When a particularly vicious and low grade theater opens up in an Oklahoma town, they call it a ‘honky-tonk.’” Already people seemed puzzled by the origin of the word: “it just growed.”
But we can trace the word back even further. The earliest use of the word I can find is in 1887. At a horse show at the state fair grounds in Dallas W. T. Campbell entered a horse named “Gen. Honk-a-Tonk.”
W. T. Campbell, owner of Gen. Honk-a-Tonk, was a Fort Worth horseman.
(When Campbell’s horse Reno Defiance, mentioned in the 1887 clip, died in 1901, the horse’s body was taken from Fort Worth to Dallas and buried “with ceremonious honors” in the paddock at the state fair grounds, where he had been a star trotter.)
Wikipedia also ties the origin of the word honky tonk to Fort Worth: “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.’ The fact the words are capitalized suggests it may have been the proper name for the theater; if so, however, it is not known whether the name was taken from a generic use of the word, or whether the name of the theater became a generic term for similar establishments.” The Wikipedia article implies that the Honky Tonk theater on Main Street was in Fort Worth, but, alas, the “Special to the Gazette” report was actually a digest of Dallas news printed in the Fort Worth newspaper. (I can find no city directory listing for a theater by that name in Fort Worth or Dallas during that time.)
Discounting Wikipedia’s claim of Fort Worth having a “Honky Tonk theater” in 1889, Wikipedia says Fort Worth was reported to have such a theater in 1892: “The terms honky tonk, honk-a-tonk, and honkatonk have been cited from at least . . . 1890 in the [Dallas] Morning News, and 1892 in the Galveston Daily News, which used the term to refer to an adult establishment in Fort Worth. Whether the word came from the name of a theater in Fort Worth or the theater in Fort Worth took its name from a generic term, the sound of the word honky tonk (or honk-a-tonk) and the types of places that were called honky tonks suggest that the word may be an onomatopoeic reference to the loud or boisterous music and noise heard at a honky tonk.”
Wikipedia also says the word may refer to the upright pianos made by William Tonk & Bros.
Wikipedia adds: “The fact that the early uses of the word in print mostly appear along a corridor roughly coinciding with cattle drive trails extending from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas and into South-Central Oklahoma suggests that the origin of the word may have been a localism spread by cowboys driving cattle to market.”
Indeed, most of the earliest references I found are from north Texas and Oklahoma.
Honky-tonks began as saloons or theaters that served alcohol and presented entertainment tailored to the tastes of cowboys and other working-class people. This August 6, 1890 Dallas Morning News clip is one of the earliest to include a definition of the word. In Fort Worth such establishments would have been most common in Hell’s Half Acre.
Indeed, on January 7, 1897 the Register reported that the proprietor of a honk-a-tonk on Front Street (Lancaster Avenue) at the southern fringe of the Acre had skipped town.
And this April 3, 1897 Register clip shows a honk-a-tonk at Jones and 12th streets on the eastern fringe of the Acre.
The September 22, 1892 Dallas Morning News reported the arrest of a “variety actress” at a Fort Worth honk-a-tonk.
Folks did not go to honky-tonks to see Gilbert and Sullivan or Tristan and Isolde. For example, on April 8, 1894 the Gazette deemed the play “Shattered Idols” to be “trash” fit only for “honk-a-tonk theaters.”
On June 2, 1897 the Register reported that the city had granted a liquor license to George Bird Holland for his Holland’s Theatre “honk-a-tonk” but had denied a license to John Moore for his Standard Theatre. Both theaters were located in the Acre. On June 3 the Register editorialized about the unsavoriness of honk-a-tonk theaters in general and of Holland’s in particular.
George Holland operated theaters in Fort Worth—in and out of the Acre—for years. In 1893 his theater was on 11th Street in the Acre near two Rusk (Commerce) Street “female boarding houses” (brothels).
The honk-a-tonks of the Acre reflected the Acre itself. Notwithstanding the Register’s opinion that the Standard Theatre was “spring violets” compared with Holland’s Theatre, these half-dozen clips show the Standard to have been more Venus flytrap than violets.
A newspaper headline writer is having a good day when he or she can write a headline that contains both honky-tonk and hoochie-coochie. All that’s missing is hurdy-gurdy. At the state fair grounds in Dallas the sheriff raided “honky-tonk” and “hoochie-coochie” concerns on October 6, 1901 (just two months after the funeral for Reno Defiance at the fair grounds).
By the new century some honky-tonks, such as John Moore’s Standard Theatre, were calling themselves “vaudeville theatres.” Ad is from the 1900 city directory.
We may never know the exact role that Fort Worth played in the origin of the word honky-tonk and that type of venue, but this much is certain: “When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go, come to see me, Baby, and bring along some dough, and we’ll go . . .”
(The YouTube poster says this is the February 13, 1947 recording, which featured Tommy Jackson on fiddle.)