Styles & Forms | War Years | Country

One of the boldest innovations to coalesce in the 1940s was honky-tonk, a style that not only endures but continues to flourish in contemporary country music. Honky-tonk is a state of mind as well as a distinct musical style. Its roots extend back to the 1930s, though it was in the late 1940s and early 1950s that it came to its fruition.

The Arrival Of Honky-Tonk

The catch phrase ‘honky-tonk’, as near as anyone has been able to determine, first began to insinuate itself into the unofficial American musical lexicon in 1891. That’s when a newspaper in Carter County, Oklahoma reported that ‘the honk-a-tonk last night was well attended by ball-heads, bachelors and leading citizens’. It fell to Texas artist Al Dexter (1902–84) to formally introduce the phrase – which had already found currency in blues music – to country listeners. He did this with ‘Honky-tonk Blues’, recorded for Vocalion in 1936. Before long, honky-tonk’s recognition had grown from an ill-defined figure of speech to the demarcation of an exciting new and emerging musical form.

Prior to honky-tonk, the dominant themes in country music were, as often as not, celebrations of bedrock rural values like family, faith, fidelity and the redeeming powers of love and honest labour. Early country offered listeners familiarity, reassurance and a soothing sense of place, often expressed through a prism of comforting nostalgia.

But honky-tonk, which first arose in Texas and Oklahoma saloons and dance halls (often called honky-tonks), marked the advent of a new and more tumultuous and rootless era and its attendant discontents as the USA’s long, uneasy rural-to urban cultural transition accelerated.

The unease of this demographic shift was especially felt in the rough and tumble, transient Second World War-era oilfield, factory and shipyard settlements in Texas and the great American Southwest. This increasingly strident, electrified and often recklessly celebratory and world-weary music often captured the dislocation and insecurity of the people who lived and worked in these transient settlements. Honky-tonk’s prevailing ethos was a live-for-today commingling of carefree, late-night celebration with the stark realism, despair, and disillusionment of unsettled lives lived from paycheck to paycheck.

The Wild Side Of Life

Unlike the earlier traditional country music of artists such as The Carter Family, honky-tonk tended to be devoid of moral instruction. In its more graphic strains, it celebrated the wilder side of life – alcoholism, infidelity, betrayal – while also lamenting its consequences.

In large part, honky-tonk is a worldly music whose provocativeness and dramatic tension often reside in the way a great honky-tonk song can steep listeners in equal portions of light-hearted abandon and booze-soaked celebration with countervailing emotions of despair, guilt, contrition and even fatalism.

Popular song titles like ‘Born To Lose’ (Ted Daffan, 1912–96), ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ (Hank Thompson, b. 1925), ‘Slippin’ Around’ (Floyd Tillman, 1914–2003), ‘Divorce Me C.O.D.’ (Merle Travis, 1917–83) and ‘Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin’ (Ernest...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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