Texas Honky Tonk Music
from James Rice’s book,,
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
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
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
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
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.
by Jerry Flemmons, Travel
Editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram,
submitted to SSQQ by Sylvia Tucker
back it seems that in Texas, 18 was considered the proper age at
which to dance in public, meaning at a beer joint.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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.
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
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.
SHALL WE DANCE?
Article written by Stephanie
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
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
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
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!"