In the Old West, honky-tonks were a mixture of bawdy music hall, cheap dance hall and brothel. They were lawless, violent places most of the time.
The saloon had its own social role. It offered a place for men to meet up, socialise and exchange information about work and community events. It often doubled up as post office. The honky-tonk, instead, was really a den with no recognisable positive quality.
But there was music. The honky-tonk was often a piano bar where music related to ragtime was played. The pianos in those establishments were often poorly taken care for and therefore out of tune – when keys weren’t altogether missing. Thus this music would emphasise rhythm more than melody or harmony. It tended to be very straightforward.
These distinctive characteristics let honky-tonk music evolve into a genre of its own and later acquired a kind of middle-brow status.
Because African Americans were barred from attractive work possibilities, most musicians played, and learned to play, in honky-tonks, and here’s where jazz most probably acquired a few of its characteristics.
Honkytonks were working-class places with a reputation for fleecing their customers, and like saloons, they catered exclusively for men. They offered music and even shows where vocalists and dancers often mingled with patrons in what was a very basic form of communal creation. Later, they became very popular for jam sessions. Many early jazzmen remembered honky-tonks with great fondness.
Neil Powell, The Language of Jazz. Routledge, 2000
World Wide Words – Honky Tonk