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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.


Two-Steppin’ Texas Memories

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

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. 



Article written by Stephanie Earthman Baird

This article appeared in the Fall 2008 Issue of The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Magazine

Story contributed to the Newsletter by SSQQ Western Instructor Daryl Armstrong

"From dancing in place during RODEO HOUSTON concert to "Dancin' in the Dome" at The Hideout, award-winning country acts at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo provide the perfect opportunity to tap your toes. One of the oldest arts, dance, along with music, expresses the soul and spirit of a culture. Country and Western dancing is a part of this universal language, and its roots spread deep and wide. It is not the steps that Country and Western dancing special, as there are only a few basic dance steps in the world, but rather its history and its style.

During the pioneer days of the United States, immigrant settlers had little or no familiarity with each other's customs. From the festive rituals of Germany, the pubs of Ireland, and the ballrooms of France, early settlers brought unique dance combinations to the growing nation. As they adjusted to their new home, these pioneers gathered and dance on common ground through community events.

Barn raisings, quilting bees and other social celebrations laid the foundation for the development of Country and Western dance. At these events, the traditional dances of faraway places mixed, mingled and evolved into American versions of formal squares and rounds. "Squares" refer to structured group dances, while "Rounds"
are dances performed simultaneously by partners following each other around a large circle.

Squares and rounds graced the dance floor at both formal and informal gatherings. Formal invitations to social balls included dance cards, which listed 10 to 12 dances to be performed in sequence. Farmers and country folk usually were not invited to the formal balls of the upper class. Instead, dressed in their Sunday best, they found themselves in neighbor's houses, where everyone was invited. These barn dances, which originated in Scotland in the 1860s, were at the core of Country and Western dancing and remained popular until the early 1900s.

Traditional squares danced in the early days, such as France's quadrille and the contra, form the root of American square dancing. Three round dances - the schottische, polka, and the waltz - were integral to square dancing groups at the time.

At the beginning of the 20tgh century, American dancing changed profoundly. Quadrilles and contras declined in popularity. People modified the waltz and forgot the polka. The foxtrot, Charleston, and rumba dominated the dance floor instead. It took nostalgic yearnings after World War II to spawn a rediscovery of the old-fashioned square dance. Groups expanded, new groups formed and new callers - the people who called out the next move- were developed. Meanwhile, round dances were set to new music and rhythms.

With the advent of radio, the offbeat cadence of Country and Western music shaped Texas-style dancing. Radio stations helped coming country music, barn dancing and square dances. Hillbilly, mountain and folk music moved traditional dance pattern closer to modern Country and Western dance.

Jazz even played a role in the C&W dance development in the early 1930s. Texas' Bob Wills jazzed up country string instruments and created a genre of music know as Western Swing. Today's modern country swing dance was influenced directly by Wills' music and the way folks moved to its beat.

However, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that traditional Texas dances gained national attention under the name of Country and Western dancing. Discos gave way to dance halls, honky-tonks and country dance clubs. Movies such as "Urban Cowboy" had everyone dressing and dancing like cowboy and cowgirls. In 1982, Congress named square dancing the nation's official folk dance.

According to Rick Archer, owner of a local dance club and studio, "Urban Cowboy" caused seismic shifts in the Houston dance scene. "I watched Houston nightclubs switch from Disco to Western dancing with staggering speed," said Archer.

But Disco did not die without leaving its footprints on Country and Western dance moves. "Practically overnight we stepped across the floor in a more sophisticated manner with added turns and spins. Guys started moving forward with their right arm around their partner's back instead of crooked around her neck," explained Archer.

Texas dances mostly are variations of the traditional Twostep. Once a rather simple barn dance consisting of a basic walking step, the Texas Twostep borrows figures form both the international foxtrot and swing. It consists of two long steps and a step-close-step to two-four time. Texans sometimes add a personal touch with a unique crouch and gait, but generally, excessive pumping of arms up and down is considered embarrassing.

Texans also enjoy other traditional dances such as the polka, the waltz, and the swing. The polka is a high-energy dance that moves counter-clockwise around the floor. This dance originated from a Bohemian peasant girl and was introduced to society in 1844. Today's Texans step left-close-left, right-close-right - a Twostep with a hop.

Dancers still get cozy with the once taboo waltz. Gentlemen steer and whirl ladies around the dance floor to this fancy Bohemian Twostep called a redowa. In Texas, the waltz inspired such songs as Ernest Tubbs "Waltz Across Texas". "With your hand in mine, I could dance on and on; I could waltz across Texas with you," Tubbs sang.

Otherwise known as the jitterbug, the swing, with its fast spins and intricate patterns, is a versatile dance that rangers from freestyle to highly choreographed movements. At its root is a jazzy Twostep danced by African-Americans on the plantations in the South and modernized during Will's era.

Texans also participate in line dancing - where no partner is needed. Line dances are patterned after the German schottische and what would now be called "clogging".

These dances typically require high energy and lots of noise. Walking, kicking, swiveling and turning sequences progress in line, much like skaters. Song such as "Achy Breaky Heart" and "Boot Scootin' Boogie" are famous nationwide as line dance music. And the ever-popular "Cotton-Eyed Joe" still draws big audiences to the dance floor. As the country music group Alabama sing, "I remember down in Houston, we were putting' on a show, when a cowboy in the back stood up and yelled, 'Cotton-Eyed Joe!'"

Whether kickin' up their heels or scootin' a boot, Texans always find a reason to dance!"


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