The First Honky Tonks


(c) 2005 M. Lee Murrah



There is no more enduring image in country music than the honky-tonk, that place of raucous, randy fun.  It’s where Hank Williams suggested in “Honky Tonkin’” that you go when “you and your baby have a little falling out”.  It’s where Hank Thompson first identified “honky tonk angels” in “The Wild Side of Life” and where the angels responded through Kitty Wells that they were created not by God but by unfaithful men.  It was where Garth Brooks found the company of the “American Honky Tonk Bar Association”.  Even rocker Mick Jagger sang about the delights of “Honky Tonk Women”. 


The imagery became so pervasive that an entire style of country music sung by Texans such as Floyd Tillman and Ernest Tubb came to be known as honky tonk music.  This style was developed in the roadhouses of the southwest that featured the seductive combination of liquor, music, dancing and violence.  The music spoke to the lives of the their clientele and, because it was electrified and had a strong beat, was loud enough to be heard over the clanking glasses and loud conversation.


The First Appearance in Print


Despite its ubiquity in modern country music, the origins of the term honky-tonk are obscure.  Most dictionaries simply state “origin unknown”.  According to standard slang references, the term first appeared in print in 1894 as “honk-a-tonk” in the Daily Ardmoreite, a newspaper in the city of Ardmore on the southern edge of the Indian Nation, now Oklahoma. The paper reported in a brief front page article that


The honk-a-tonk last night was well attended by ball-heads, bachelors and leading citizens.


Writer Nick Tosches mused on the origins of the term in “County-The Music and the Musicians” and observed that “Well, when we figure out what ‘ball-heads’ were, perhaps we’ll have a clue about “honk-a-tonk.”


            The delightfully enigmatic newspaper article was the culmination of a series of editorials in the paper in the days preceding.  In the editorials the editor railed against a traveling burlesque show known as the  "Fanny Hill Burlesque Company" in an attempt to convince readers not to patronize it.  The name of the show was obviously derived from the famous English bawdy novel “Fanny Hill—Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.”  The name alone suggests that the show featured scantily clad women, and perhaps more.  The editor argued strenuously that respectable people should not patronize “these exhibitors of high-kicking vaudeville proclivities” and referred to the women of the show as “painted, padded and brazen harlots who had the unmitigated effrontery to pose as examples of legitimate burlesque comedy.” 


Honk-a-tonk appeared in print for the first time because the editor failed in his mission. None of the preceding editorials used the term honk-a-tonk.  Seen in the light of the previous editorials, the article must be taken as a sarcastic reproval of those of Ardmore’s leading citizens who attended the show. By grouping respectable community leaders with young, unmarried men and the mysterious, but presumably distasteful, “ball-heads”, the editor shamed the “leading citizens” for the company they kept.  This was also the time to call out the heavy rhetorical artillery and tag the burlesque show with the most disreputable term he knew—honk-a-tonk.


If the Daily Ardmoreite editor was in fact comparing the Fanny Hill Burlesque Show to something else, we can infer that a honk-a-tonk is an event or place where shameful things occur, perhaps involving women of low repute and music.


Who Are the Ball-Heads?


If Tosches is right about “ball-heads”, we need to examine that term.  It is well known that when “head” is used as a suffix to a noun, it refers to someone who is obsessive about an activity.  “Gear-heads” are car fanatics, and “Dead-heads” are ardent fans of the rock group Grateful Dead.  It only remains to determine what kind of ball the ball-heads were fanatical about.


One might guess baseball since baseball was the rage in the Gay Nineties, and young men played it enthusiastically as they do softball today.  It would not seem, however, that a baseball game would be too respectable to be a honk-a-tonk. There is a kind of ballgame that was known to be played in Indian Territory that might quality, however.  That was the Indian ballgame that in its modern, standardized form is called lacrosse.


The status of Ardmore as the largest town in the Chickasaw Nation, though run mostly by white merchants, might suggest that honky-tonk may have an Indian connection.  Another clue is that the word itself.  Honky-tonk features the “k” or “hard g” sound, which is widespread in Indian languages.  Examples are omnipresent in geographic and tribal names:  Oklahoma, Cherokee, Chickasaw, etc.  Also the term is euphonic, which means that certain sounds are repeated; and euphony is characteristic of Indian languages.


Indian ball games played with a rawhide ball and sticks with a netted fork were played everywhere in the United States.  Only lacrosse remains as an example of this game.  It is often thought of as a northern game.  The city of Lacrosse, Wisconsin gets its name from the fact that the game was played there on a large flat field near the Mississippi River.

Indian ball games were spectacles.  In an era before massive sporting events in the Anglo world, Indian ball games were unique. George Catlin, famous for painting scores of portraits of Indians across North America, stated that he would travel long distances to attend a ball game.  To the young men of towns like Ardmore, they would have been an irresistible draw.  The games featured large numbers of players.  One game in Oklahoma had 1000 players on the field.  The games were violent, and broken limbs were common.  Deaths were not unheard of.  Since there were no marked boundaries as in modern field games, spectators could easily be trampled.


Indian ball games were accompanied by feasting, singing, dancing, and drinking.  Players were scantily clothed, and Indian women did not always adhere to Anglo standards of feminine modesty.  It has reported that Indian women also played ball and did so topless just like the men.  Gambling was rampant, and some Indians bet and lost everything they owned on ball games.

The free sexuality of American Indians should be also noted. Native Americans were never as sexally constrained as Europeans, and male visitors to Indian camps were routinely provided with native women. In fact, every member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition other than Lewis and Clark eventually died of syphilis presumably contracted from Indian women they encountered on the journey. It is said that Lewis and Clark refused their hosts' courtesies, although Merriwether Lewis eventually suffered from mental instability, a known effect of syphilis, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot while suffering an episode of mental illness. Perhaps young white visitors to Indian ballgames availed themselves of such Indian freedoms. Perhaps Texas cowboys on their way north took time from their herds when passing through the Indian Nation to experience such pleasures forbidden back home.


The connection between honky-tonk and Indian ball might be thought fanciful if it were not for the Choctaw word for ball field.  It was hetoka., which refers to water.  Indian ball games were large events and required a flat field and a nearby source of water.  Both requirements were met by fields that were adjacent rivers and streams. Note that La Crosse Wisconsin is near the Mississippi River.


So an Indian ball game has all the requirements of a honky-tonk-music, dancing, liquor, and at least from the white viewpoint less than respectable women.  Throw in gambling, and you have an irresistible lure to young men such as perhaps the ball-heads of Ardmore, Indian Territory.


Sedalia and Scott Joplin


If whites turned hetoka into honky-tonk, one wonders how it found its way into modern music.  We know that it first appeared in popular music at the turn of the 20th Century, then entered blues and jazz, and finally made its way into country music via Al Dexter’s recording Honky Tonk Blues in the late 1930s.  The popular songs that first used the honky-tonk theme were written in the section of New York City known as Tin Pan Alley.  There the discordant mix of musical sounds emanating from the warrens of the songwriters sounded to many like clanging pans.


The carrier was probably the ragtime music of Texas-born Scott Joplin, who wrote his first rag while living in Sedalia, Missouri and playing piano at a men’s club named the Maple Leaf Club. Ragtime, of course, became the rage in the early part of the 20th Century, and the genre was quickly adopted by Tin Pan Alley.


A little known fact about Sedalia is that it was an early cow town. The best known cow towns were in Kansas—Wichita, Abilene, and the archetypal cow town, Dodge City. These were towns to which cowboys drove cattle from Texas to be shipped east by the railroads.  The Kansas towns were the last of the cow towns. The earliest post-Civil War trail drives (and even some before the Civil War) were destined for Iowa and Missouri.  Due to obstruction by settlers, payment of tribute, outlawry, other costly impediments, the trail drovers sought more southerly destinations.  Some turned east and headed for Sedalia, Missouri, where some 20 years later a young Scott Joplin would pump out his syncopated ragtime music.


The Cow Town Honky Tonks


So it is likely that the cowboys who came up the trail from Texas spread honky-tonk from presumably Oklahoma first to Sedalia and then to all the cow towns of America’s central plains.  Cow towns were wild and wooly places. Aside from the railroad shipping facilities, they were built for the purpose of separating the cowboy from his money.  After several months on the trail the typical cowboy, who was almost always from his mid-teens to mid-20’s, wanted to blow off some steam.  Cow towns provided everything he needed—liquor, music, and women—and more often than not the cowboy went back to Texas dead broke.  There was gunplay too, although town marshals tried to keep it under control.  Their job was to keep order but not kill the paying customers.  Dodge City was once known as the “wickedest little town in America”.  The term “red light district” is said to derive from the practice of railroad conductors hanging their lanterns outside Dodge City’s bordellos.

America’s most famous lawman, Wyatt Earp knew the term honky-tonk well.  Earp’s quasi-autobiography Wyatt Earp--Frontier Marshal written in 1931 by Stuart Lake from a manuscript written in the late 1920’s by Earp makes many references to honky-tonks in Dodge where Earp was a lawman in the mid-1870’s. Earp also spoke of honky-tonks in Deadwood and Tombstone. It is clear from his use of the term that he is referring to Dodge City’s many bordellos.  Earp reported that in the cow towns:


Monte, keno, poker, and faro games, as well as frontier bordellos—honky-tonks or hurdy-gurdies, they were called—ran full-blast twenty-four hours a day.


It should be noted here that some argue that "honky tonk" derives from the "bonk" sound of pianos played with a steady, heavy beat. The euphonic term "hurdy gurdy" probably derives from the sound of the instrument known by that name. While "bonk" seems implausible, one could see how the sound of a clanking piano could be described as "honky tonk".


The atmosphere in a Kansas honky-tonk is illustrated by this story in which Earp went to repossess a piano from a honky-tonk outside Wichita.


Wyatt rounded up four husky fellows whom he had known on the buffalo range and, late in the evening, when Ida May’s place was crowded, took them and a wagon to the front door of the honky-tonk.  Inside, the “professor” was making good use of the instrument to be replevined, and Wyatt and his helpers were in the midst of the merrymaking before their presence was noted.


In 1875 the Dodge City council passed a temporary ordinance that forbade riding an animal into any store, saloon, dance hall, gambling house or honky-tonk.


Earp reports the story of Dora Hand, who may be the first singer who could be termed a “honky-tonker.”  Dora was killed in her bed when a revengeful cowboy shot her by mistake when he fired his gun into the house where we expected his intended victim to be sleeping.  Dora was had formerly been a grand opera singer, but in Dodge she was a beloved church-going dance hall singer who “sang of nights in bars and honky-tonks.”


Dodge was not the only place that honky-tonks were known. Honky-tonk also appears in the classic cowboy reminiscence “We Pointed Them North” written by Edward. C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott written in 1938.  Abbott was an English-born and Nebraska-raised cowboy who came up the trail from Texas on four cattle drives.  Later as a rancher he helped pioneer the cattle industry in Montana.  Teddy Blue wanted his book to be different from others he had read on the cattle drives that were “entirely accurate as to facts, but they are not told right”.  He wanted to put in the fun because “fun was at least half of it.”  Teddy’s fun clearly included the activities found in honky-tonks.


            As a rebellious teenager, Teddy was seen by a preacher hanging around the saloons in Nebraska.  The preacher informed Teddy’s father, and when confronted


I told him I was keeping a girl at one of the honky-tonks as a mistress.


            Teddy Blue spoke of visiting the “wide open town” of El Paso in 1880.


The railroad was coming and always ahead of it there comes these tent saloons and honky-tonks, a whole army of them.


Teddy told of a trip to Miles City, Montana.


There was a very popular demi-mondaine by the name of Willie Johnson, who was running Kit Hardiman’s honky-tonk…


A demi-mondaine was one of the “soiled doves” that we now call prostitutes.


            Another who spoke of the cow town honky-tonks was drover Frank Murphy.  Murphy reminiscing in 1932, stated:


Saloons, gambling-joints, and honkey-tonks of the northern towns had one main purpose in view—the taking of the visiting cattleman’s money as quickly as possible.”


            While both the Earp and Abbott accounts were written years after the events portrayed, it is likely that they used the words used back then.


            So what connects Ardmore, Oklahoma with the cow towns of Missouri, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Montana?  The obvious answer is cattle drives that followed trails starting below San Antonio and stretching to the rail heads in Kansas and Missouri and later to the grasslands in Nebraska and Montana.


            Ironically, the adoption of honky-tonk by Southwestern country songwriters in the 1930s such as Al Dexter brought the term full circle back to its likely beginnings.  Honky tonk must have arisen somewhere along the Texas cattle trails, perhaps as a word borrowed from Indians in the Indian Nation.  It became attached to the music-filled bordellos that grew in the old West cow towns that served the Texas cowboys at trail’s end.  It probably entered music via the saloon singers such as Dora Hand in Dodge and the piano playing “professors” who played in the cow town bordellos.  The most famous of these professors was Scott Joplin who plied his trade in Sedalia, Missouri.  Joplin and others must have taken it to Tin Pay Alley via ragtime music, which later morphed in to jazz and then blues, which became the bases for modern pop music in the 20s.  Pop music formed a major ingredient modern commercial country, and pop-influenced country songwriters in the Southwest brought the term back to its probable birthplace and finally to its current home, Nashville.



1.       Dary, David, Cowboy Culture

2.       Stuart N. Lake, Wyatt Earp—Frontier Marshall (New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

3.       Abbott, Edward C., We Pointed them North

4.       Daily Ardmoreite, Ardmore, Oklahoma

5.       Frank Murphy, “Why Cemeteries Became Boot Hills,” Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, Oct. 23, 1932, p. 509.