CODES, Honky Tonks and History

A couple of days ago, Ken Mattox sent a post regarding the SCCM meeting in Houston in which he mentioned that the CODES were playing at a local “Honky Tonk”. That term instantly identified Ken as a Texas boy. J

Some history:

What most people think of as “Country Music” originally started out as “Country & Western” in origin.  The “Country” portion originated around Nashville and spread more or less straight South.  The “Western” component definitely originated in Texas and Oklahoma and has pretty much remained there. That genre is said by many to be the most listened-to music in the country.

Along a separate track, the “Blues”, a blending of gospel, church spirituals and black southerners’ perception of jazz, originated in Mississippi Delta area, specifically around Greenville, MS. The blues comprised an eclectic variety of music in the five note minor pentatonic chording, comprising fairly simple 12 bar rhythm featuring the “blue notes”: flattened 3rd and flattened 5th of the normal seven note major scale. These tones are instantly recognizable, conferring a mournful tone to the music.

The “Delta Fathers”, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and Charlie Patton.  These guys had little or no electricity and so played acoustic guitars for little reason other than to keep time and provide background.  Their lyrics universally interpreted their tough life in the cotton fields. The Dobro guitar was invented with a resonator to increase the volume of sound in small clubs. Slide playing was popular and was accomplished with broken off pop bottle tops or pocketknife blades handy as impromptu protective weapons in dealing with plentiful rowdy drunks.

When jobs in the industrializing North opened up, black musicians migrated to Chicago and discovered electrified sound. The “Chicago Blues” was born; BB King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf added piano, drums, bass to electrified guitars creating combos. Pittsburg, MS was named for the Pittsburgh, PA industrial heritage. BB King is considered by many to be the father of Chicago Blues, and is still playing today, albeit sitting down. At one point in his life, Eric Clapton refused to talk to anyone that couldn’t demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of American blues artists.

Shaped by then social issues, blues music followed certain inevitable paths throughout the South, The tributaries that feed the “Chitlin Circuit”, an entertainment venue safe for black musicians started in Louisiana, became manifest in Mississippi through Alabama and Georgia. The song “Tuxedo Junction” (Glenn Miller, 1939) was written about a stop in Birmingham, Alabama. The path swung up through the Eastern Seaboard as far New York City, including the famous “Cotton Club” and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. BB King’s album “Live at the Apollo” is said by many to be one of the best of the genre.

A large number of notable performers have trod the Chitlin Circuit over the years including Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Redd Foxx, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix (with Little Richard), Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Wilson Pickett, Richard Pryor, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, Ike & Tina Turner, The Temptations, Muddy Waters, and Flip Wilson. It was considered a monster breeding ground for talent.

Many clubs in the Deep South were called “Juke Joints”; tiny shacks, dirt floor, a bar, small stage and a juke box.  Musicians followed the circuit night after night, playing for tips and sometimes drinks. When I was 15 years old, I ended up spending a couple of months in Beaumont, Texas with some of my parent’s friends. I got a job moving cases of pop bottles off and on trucks, and spent some time as an assistant to one of the supply trucks servicing area juke joints (and there were a lot of them) with soda drinks. It was a brutal 16-hour a day job and some of those joints were, shall we say, unique. I was not culturally prepared to understand the reality of the model.

Given that bit of musical evolution, the term “Honky Tonk” is a little out of the way of country and blues, but interesting nonetheless. It pretty much resisted evolutionary forces, remaining a staple of the Texas music scene.  The etymology of the term has always been unclear. One of the interpretations came from the sound of geese, which led an unsuspecting group of cowboys to the flock instead of to the juke joint they expected. “Honky Tonks” were rough establishments that sold ethanol-containing libations to patrons with a low threshold for fighting and mayhem. Prostitution was a common theme. They were rugged places that catered to rugged people.

A staple of Honky Tonk music was the upright piano, the ivories of which were tickled in every way from ragtime to Boogie-Woogie rhythms, later made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. Singers lamented the frequently tragic themes of working-class life: lost love, adultery, loneliness, alcoholism, and self-pity. Icons of Honky Tonk music include Ernest Tubbs, Kitty Wells, George Jones and Webb Pierce. The twelve-bar blues instrumental “Honky Tonk” (1956) by the Bill Doggett Combo, with a saxophone lead and slow driving beat, morphed into an early “rock and roll” hit as that genre split from the blues and do-wop in the late 50s. A very interesting separate discussion.

It was into this historical milieu that the CODES entered on Monday night, 2/6/12 to play a gig supported by SCCM.  I recognized the place immediately. A loud jukebox playing classic country-western songs loud. Shapely blond barmaids sporting ragged jeans and tank tops.  Longhaired guys with western hats and tattoos sitting around drinking alone. Lots of alcohol related posters on the walls (including the World’s Most Interesting Man”- Dos Equis Beer). A crowded, dusty stage for the band.

We were about as much a part of this scene as the Allman Brothers Band at a Yo Yo Ma concert.  I was pretty sure the CODES could get maybe halfway through one song before we were roughly ejected out onto the street for tainting the pure essence of local musical tastes.

But, life never ceases to surprise me.  After sound checks, we fine-tuned a couple of numbers and were greeted with some actual applause from the locals.  Go figure. By the time the evening was over (around midnight) the locals were boogying around the dance floor with the SCCM dignitaries and it was our typical rowdy bar scene the CODES are more or less famous for.

All things considered, it was a success and everyone seemed to have a great time.

Somewhere the Foo Fighters are smiling.

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