The definition of a Honky Tonk is ‘the name given to a type of bar that provides country music for entertainment to its patrons.’ This name has also been applied to a variety of music genre’s centering around a country theme. Whether it’s referring to a local country bar or a new favorite track, the term is still widely used today, but the question is, where did this quirky term originate from?
When the word first came about, a Honky Tonk was considered to be a place that served alcohol to working class folk. They also typically featured some element of live music such as a piano player or a live band. Dancing was very common at these establishments as the night went on, and very often they were also well known for being centers of prostitution.
The sad truth about the word ‘Honky Tonk’ is that no one can really agree how it came about. The earliest evidence of the word being used was by a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas in 1889. The word was capitalized and followed by the word ‘theater’ in the article, which was simply a petition to re-open the establishment. This suggests that perhaps it was just the name of the establishment rather than the type. In another newspaper article in 1894, this time in Oklahoma, the word honk-a-tonk was used in an article, but it had nothing to do with a bar or theater of any kind. Historians believe the word might have been meant to describe cattle drive trails where cowboys would bring their livestock to market. These were very common around the border of Texas and Oklahoma during that time period. As cowboys were common in these types of establishments, this localized slang may have developed into the name for their local drinking holes over time. One final other theory about the terms origination comes from the name of an American piano manufacturer. ‘William Tonk & Bros’ started making pianos in the late 1880’s many of which were likely being played in these Honky Tonk establishments. As music was a commonality for these types of bars, it’s very plausible that ‘Honky Tonk’ developed from the brand name of these pianos.
There is much dispute on where exactly the first Honky Tonks originated from. That being said most people would agree that they originated somewhere around Texas and its neighboring states. As mentioned above, Texas and Oklahoma have the oldest newspaper record of the word being used. Basically, where there were cowboys, there seemed to be evidence of Honky Tonks. Writers of the late 1800s such as Wyatt Earp, mentioned visiting Honky Tonks in a variety of cowtowns from Kansas to Montana. In accounts of the Spanish-American War in the early 1900’s Honky Tonks were even mentioned as far west as New Mexico.
Today Honky Tonks are losely synonymous with a country western bar that offers live music. They are no longer limited to the ‘wild wild west’ region of the United States and can be found in major cities and small towns from California to North Carolina. While this type of quirky named establishment may have changed over the years and we still don’t really know exactly where it came from, we are proud to be an authentic Honky Tonk for the city of Denver!