Honky Tonk Music
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Texas Honky Tonk Music

Excerpted from James Rice’s book,, 1985

On the frontier real professional musicians were hard to come by. There was considerably more call for people who could punch cattle or farm or make things or fix them up after they had broken, but there were places and times that the demand was high for entertainment of any kind. If a body could make music or run a game or bring in liquor his future was made.

Or if it was a woman she didn’t need any particular skills at all. She could entertain just by being herself.

The main places were Texan by population and spirit even if they were sometimes outside the borders – the big crossroads trading posts, the shipping centers at the railheads, and active mining towns. The times were when a job ended at the end of a cattle drive or a strike was made or whenever there was a slack time that one had change in the pocket.

The rough range workers went one place for entertainment – the saloon. There they could drink, gamble, listen to music, and usually meet a woman without formal introduction. The saloon girls ranged from downright homely to kind of pretty – depending on the number of drinks that preceded the meeting, the amount of light, or the time spent on the trail before reaching town or how close it was to closing time. A woman could help separate a cowboy from a big part of a season’s earnings in a few hours and just leave him with something to dream about on his next rail drive as the only return on his money.

Probably the celebrating-est people in the history of mankind were the cowboys who celebrated at the end of a long cattle drive. Many of them could get rid of a season’s wages, earned by months of hard work and long hours on the trail in just a few short nights of revelry. It wasn’t unusual for a cowboy to put back enough to replace worn-out clothes and boots, and then completely blow the rest.

This started the lasting Texas tradition of celebrators putting on the trappings of a cowboy, or the city slicker’s idea of a cowboy to go out and raise hell. Cowboy boots and hat are required apparel if a body’s going out celebrating in a Texas honky-tonk, even if a person’s never been on a horse or even knows what a cow looks like.

Texas honky-tonk music has been called a lot of things in its time – a big part of it bad. For some the mention of honky-tonk just naturally conjures up pictures of drinking and roughhousing and wild wild women. Some things stand out about a Texas honky-tonk. The music had better be loud and it had better have a beat since most of those cowboys get hard of hearing when they get a woman in their arms.

The music may have started out in the country, but along the way it has picked up a lot of the city as well. Bob Wills may not have been the first honky-tonk country musician to borrow from popular music, but he did it bigger and better than anyone else. Kick any bush in the state of Texas and there’s a fifty-fifty chance a fiddle player will fall out of it. If you ask him where he learned to play, the majority of them will claim they helped ole Bob Wills himself get started. Bob Wills mixed a little bit of Mexican Cantina music with a little bit of Blues and gospel sounds, threw in some jazz and folk music, and came up with a sound that has found a permanent home in the state of Texas. He called it “Western Swing”.

The sounds get different and people who make the music change, but the spirit of the honky-tonk will go on and on as long as plain people still like to dance. And somewhere up there in sky Bob Wills is watching along with an army of the Fiddle Players and Honky-Tonk Piano players who pioneered the music we still dance to today.

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Two-Steppin’ Texas Memories

Written by Jerry Flemmons,  Travel Editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram,
in The

Article submitted to SSQQ by Sylvia Tucker

Looking back it seems that in Texas, 18 was considered the proper age at which to dance in public, meaning at a beer joint.

Perhaps that was simply the ritual’s legal threshold and custom really had nothing to do with it, but regardless, I remember well my first turn on a dance floor. I was 18, finally, and the beer joint was Saturday-night full and boisterous. My partner was much older, perhaps 25, someone’s sweetheart or wife who had agreed to dance with me while he – a largish, dour man – leaned against the bar and watched. The music, doubtless a country and western dirge of woe, came from two unamplified guitars and a scarred upright bass. And – because this was Texas – we, of course, danced the Twostep.

A rigid etiquette governed this coming-of-age ceremony, and while dancing in public with someone else’s woman, I made certain to observe it. I held my left hand cupped as a rest, not a grip, for her right hand. I held my free right arm around her, but kept the hand well above any notion of impropriety, allowing only my thumb to lie against her back. Our bodies almost - but not quite - touched. We spoke little because he was watching, and familiarity at such establishments always seemed to breed fistfights.

We danced only once and I returned her to him and found other women, all with hims of some relation, either blood or choice. But when the night was all over, I felt, well, manly. 

I had danced before at school things and in friends’ living rooms, but this was a manhood event for me, this publictwo-step dancing. (We pronounced it “daincing” in the nasal prairie patois that passed for English in West Texas.)  Two-stepping had been the common shared experience of Texan men for a century or more, the unifying occasion of socialization for state rich in space and distance but poor in available proper women. In early times, there were few unmarried women and no place to meet them except public dances. Then, in my time, nice girls didn’t go alone to beer joints; they came with their families – and so was born that familiar ritual of watchfulness.

It’s useless to explain the foot movements of two-step dancing. You kind of slide-shuffle, and either you can do it or you can’t. Maybe it’s in the genes, but I don’t remember not being able to two-step. This peculiarly Texas dance developed, my theory goes, because it fit fiddle and guitar music played in simple two-four time (one-two, one-two, slide-shuffle). And, I surmise, because a dance it required little space. Done traditionally, couples do a lot of stationary turning.

“The Texans,” observed an English visitor, Mary Jaques, in 1893, “cannot be described as graceful dancers, although they have some power of expressing the poetry of motion; their figures are supple, and they swing and sway a great deal.”

Miss Jaques made her observations at a Central Texas ranch dance, where she was properly courted and two-stepped by the cowboys, as all single women were. Back then that was the socially correct two-step venue-ranch and farmhouses to which cowboys would come from everywhere just to dance. (“Rode 20 miles, danced all night, rode 20 miles back,” reads an 1881 diary entry of one cowboy who met his future wife at just such a dance.) 

Dances moved from house to house and took place about every three months. Families would come in wagons and buggies, men by horseback. Fiddles and guitars would strike up in a corner and dancing commenced, usually not ending until dawn, while babies slept clustered on one big bed and young children played together on the front porch.

Ranch dances brought two noticeable things to the two-step. First, that economy of movement. You danced where you stood because there was no space in small rooms for long-distance dancing. Second of all, hatless cowboys. After all, it was considered poor taste to wear your hat inside somebody’s house.

The dances ended, I suppose, when public drinking finally was allowed in Texas. Beer joints became the places where young men and women could go to meet one another. By my time, however, the mechanics of the two-step had long since become stamped onto the collective psyche; Texas feet just knew, instinctively, what to do. And the traditional rite of passage, that firmly held introduction to manhood, adapted itself to a new social scene: 18, in Texas, you danced in public. 

Change, though, I’ve found is no respecter of convention. Real beer joints are about gone, I believe, replaced by bars I find less convivial. The music, I’m happy to say, remains country and western and danceable, however loudly electrified. Young men, no longer in someone’s home, do dance with their hats on, and I doubt they feel a need for any kind of formal passage into manhood. The two-step, well, it’s still done, but loosed from its claustrophobic limits of cramped rooms, it covers a full dance floor. 

One more thing I’ve noticed: Couples hold each other closer because there is no he watching by the bar. Now, that appeals to me. I was always in favor of closer dancing. 

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