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Honky Tonk (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Honky Tonk (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz) Born in shady places, on piano that often didn't work properly, Honky Tonk music slowly gain a dignity for itself
Born in shady places, considered for a long time a lesser kind of music, honky tonk piano slowly became its own recognised genre #jazz #history Click To Tweet
H - Honky Tonk (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

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


  • Laura Roberts
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 02:20

    Pianos with missing keys! Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! Oh wait, I think that’s a big later… 😉

    This post makes me think of that Rolling Stones tune, “Honky Tonk Woman”:

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2016 at 07:21

      LOL! I think it takes great skills to play on a piano with missing keys 🙂

  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 03:07

    Being a Texan, I have loved me some music that evolved out of the Honky Tonk style. Hank Williams, Gary Stewart. I suppose I never thought about jazz having roots in it. But there is that strong back beat it much of the jazz music, as it is in the blues and modern honky tonk.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2016 at 07:23

      Truth is, lots of different influences converged into jazz. Apparently, that’s why it’s so difficult to define: because of its complexity and diverse texture 🙂

  • Parul
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 04:14

    Informative. I haven’t heard of that one so not much of an idea.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2016 at 07:24

      I have heard this music in so many films, especially westerns, but I’ve never known it was honky tonk music 🙂

  • Tasha
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 10:20

    Some amazing things can come out of very dodgy places it seems 🙂
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 14:55

    I would definitely hang out in a honky tonk if I was around back then. 😉

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 18:49

    Haha! I didn’t know that about the untuned pianos, but it makes a whole lot of sense 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 9, 2016 at 19:06

      These are the kind of details that I love to discover studing history 🙂

  • Molly
    Posted April 9, 2016 at 20:39

    I grew up with my parents talking about honky tonk music. My dad especially loved it – although I can’t envision him ever visiting a honky tonk 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 07:19

      Yeah, they sounds quite seedy places. But the music is good and I read that afterwards it became a genre with its own dignity.

  • BarbCT
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 03:49

    How interesting! I’ve only ever associated honky-tonks with Country music.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 07:20

      It’s also one of the many influences of jazz, apparently 😉

  • Sheena-kay Graham
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 03:50

    Who said pianos are only for the fancy folk? Loving your posts.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 07:21

      True, eh? Normally piano is considered a posh instrument. But I suppose this speaks in favour of its great adaptability.

  • Sir Leprechaunrabbit
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 04:55

    YES! This type of music I know well!
    My father had an album with a beautiful young lady on it sitting before an upright piano.
    “The World of Winnifred Atwell” was the album name.
    He played it often and I always wondered why her piano sounded so funny. Dad’s didn’t sound like that!
    He then told me that to achieve that staccato tinniness, brass tacks were pushed into the felt hammer heads. These tacks would then make contact with the piano strings.
    I wanted to do that so badly, but my Father said No (because thepiano belonged to Grams!).
    Thank you for this topic, Dearie!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 07:22

      That’s such a great detail, thanks so much for sharing.
      I was also wondering how it is that the sound is so different 🙂

  • Cynthia
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 08:13

    Hello from A to Z, Sarah, and thanks for visiting my blog today. I’ve heard of honky tonks before. Since brothels are associated with honky tonks, I wonder if it meant that any woman who wanders into one of these is automatically considered a prostitute.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 08:20

      Well, before Prohibition, women were not supposed to be in any bar: not saloons, not honky tonk. So I suppose that yes, any woman in these places would get a very bad reputation.

      Besides, even in the 1920s, when women went to speakeasies without any problem, if they were unaccompanied, they still got quite a reputation.

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 10:32

    The honky tonk music is the kind of music that reminds me of the old black and white movies like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin 🙂
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

  • Jeffrey Scott
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 14:06

    That’s funny the pianos had some missing keys. So much for trying to be reputable. LOL
    Still, they did what they had to. Great music still.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 19:13

      I think it takes a lot of skills and creativity to play on such pianos 😉

  • Jo-Ann Carson
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 17:47

    I’m hooked. Totally hooked. Your post was not only informative, it evoced the atmosphere of the honky tonk. Great writing. I’ll be back.
    Jo-Ann Carson

    • Post Author
      Posted April 10, 2016 at 19:14

      Thanks, Jo-Anne. I’m so happy you enjoyed this. There’s nothing better than hearing from a happy reader 🙂

  • Jen
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 22:00

    I’ve always thought of Honky Tonks as a place to hear Country Western music, line dance, and hang out with the “good old boys”. I had no idea that Jazz got a start in them!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 13, 2016 at 13:45

      Well, it isn’t really correct that jazz ‘got a start’ in honky tonks. Rather, the way honky tonk music sounded and was made influenced how jazz sounded and was made.

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