Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 021/Honkytonk Hostess

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Honkytonk Hostess
BornEarly 1900s
North Little Rock, Arkansas
DiedUnknown
NationalityCaucasian women
Other namesNot listed
OccupationHostess/Bar back, Prostitute, interviewee for the Federal Writers Project

Template:Other uses

Overview[edit]

The honkytonk hostess was a barmaid and prostitute who traveled throughout the southwest and later served as an interviewee for the Federal Writer’s Project.

Biography[edit]

The Honkytonk Hostess grew up in a small town in Arkansas during the early 1900s. She stated in her interview that she “liked the night life and heard that honkytonks were fun” [1] and so she left her home at sixteen for a job as a waitress in a honkytonk bar in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Honkytonk bars were often filled with clientele that would best be described as backwoods or “drunken hillbilly’s”[2]which warranted them precarious if not dangerous venues. In choosing a place of employment the Honkytonk Hostess often weighed the pros of the salary and management at the bar against the danger associated with the undesirables who frequented each establishment.

She soon began working at Charlie's place [3], a bigger honkytonk right on the highway with better pay and safer conditions. Her job here was the same as the first to "carry beer back to the booths, hustle nickels for the beetle organ, and dance with the costumers."[4] During her time working here she lived in a tourist cabin just behind the bar with fellow waitress and friend whom, she called Boots. Soon, Boots and the Hostess grew restless and decided to travel to Texas in search of more rewarding job prospects. The two ended up working at a cafe in Kilgore [5] as curb hops, waitresses that served your food directly to your cars.

It was here that the hostess met her husband. He was a transport trucker who made thirty-five dollars a week (a fair amount for this time period)[6]. He was desperate to marry her, but he was on the road frequently. Previous to their meeting the Honkytonk hostess had been an independent prostitute while also being hired out on several occasions for a dollar a night during her time at Charlie's place[7]. The transport trucker bought her an apartment and let her decorate it how she liked in order to keep her happy. Soon after, she cheated on him and he threw her out. It was not specified if they ever divorced. They made a detour to Monroe, Louisiana to work at a dance hall before heading back to North Little Rock, Arkansas. They made eight dollars a week plus tips since the bar included a big club room [8](gambling area) where the ladies used sexual appeal to trick the businessmen out of hundreds of dollars a night.

When they returned to Arkansas, Boots and many of the honkytonk hostess’s other friends married, mostly clients they met working as prostitutes. The hostess was dating a man named Joe, a mechanic at Gregory’s Garage[9]who insisted that they would eventually marry. There is no record of whether she did in fact marry again. There is no knowledge of her death date or the place of her passing.

Honkytonk Bars[edit]

Honkytonks became popular at the turn of the nineteenth century, particularly with the working class, male clientele. In a nation that was focused on conformity and oppression these bar hubs provided a release to escape the “proper” [10] social conformities. The rise of Honkytonks in the 1930s coincides with the mass exodus of rural migrants to urban centers. The origins of the development of some of the first Honkytonk bars can be traced back to Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma in the midst of the oil boom. The most distinct difference between Honkytonk bars and other venues would be the style of music played at these nightclubs.

Honkytonks were country music havens, providing the connection to home these rural migrants of the 1930s and 40s needed while still allowing them to indulge in the thrill of nightlife. The music these drifters were looking for could best be described as “hard country ” or “beer-drinking music”[11]. To achieve this new sound, Honkytonk musicians adopted electric guitars, string bass, pianos, and occasionally drums to suit the noisier atmosphere they were now performing for. These new sounds assisted in the rise of honky-tonk musicians such as Bob Willis, Ted Daffin, Cliff Bruner, Moon Mullican, Al Dextar, and Ernest Tubb Hendel. [12]. In addition to this new sound this genre of music discussed heavier lyrical content then the rosy “down-home days” [13] of the past; honkytonk singers lamented over bad relationships, infidelity, divorce, and the drinking that these misfortunes lead to. For example, songs such as Rex Griffin’s “ The Last Letter”, Ted Daffin’s “Born to Lose”, and Floyd Tillman’s “It Makes No Difference Now” [14] all professed the hardships of this nomad life.

Honkytonks were hot spots for tension between the middle and working class. In fact the name “honkytonk” originates from African-American slang meaning “white shack” [15] referring to the semi-segregated spaces that honkytonks claimed to be. Honkytonks provided the opportunity for economic growth for the musicians who solicited “nickels and dimes” [16] for their performances. In addition prohibition placed honkytonks outside of the legal system. Although the primary purpose of honkytonks was to provide a place for the working class to express themselves, the middle class often imposed their higher-class value system. In the 1940s the senator of Texas proposed legislation that would prevent honkytonks from obtaining a liquor license due to their “crude, immoral, and often offensive public indecency.” [17]Honkytonks were prone to violent outbursts, which concerned the middle class bar goers. From the early 1930s well into the 1970s honkytonks encapsulated the worst stereotypes about rowdy, uncontrollable drunkards and backwoodsmen of any bar establishment at the time. All of these horror stories were simply ways to manipulate the middle class to steer clear of honkytonks since the government was unable to ban their existence outright.

Prostitute at a window during the Great Depression


Prostitution During the Great Depression[edit]

When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 many people lost money, and most of it at an exponential rate, leading to widespread poverty and loss of jobs.[18] Through it all however, one profession did not fail, prostitution. Most of the women who ended up as prostitutes during this time period were not raised in an environment that fostered this occupation. Often they were young girls migrating from small, rural towns in search of a better life in the bigger cities. Most finished high school and as soon as possible and left their homes for a working class job, as a soda jerker, usherette, drive-in-joint waitress, tavern lady, clerk, factory worker or any odd job they could find. When it was discovered that two dollars for fifteen minutes[19] was the going rate for women in this profession many women decided that the less labor intensive jobs were better.

As a legitimate “sporting girl”[20](or prostitute) there were two types of Houses you could loan your services out to. The “ringer” and the “independent”.[21] A “ringer” house is one that is part of a chain, with a central office much like restaurant or clothing store chains. The girls would be registered at the office according to age, complexion, measurements, and years of experience. Ringer houses have strict rules about being sanitary and it was a requirement for the ladies to show their certificate of health to the Madame [22] (the woman who runs each individual ringer house) or lose their jobs. The ladies subjected themselves to a G.C (gonorrhea) tests once a week, costing approximately $3.00 and a Wassermann (syphilis) test once a month, running about $5.00. The customers are allowed to see the girls tests if they request it. However, an MD of a higher standing is paid handsomely to be discreet about the tests that he runs on these girls. In addition, ringer houses pay handsomely to those in power in order to receive a twelve-hour advance tip before any police raid—which is why each girl gives a 50% split of their earnings for this advantage. [23]

An independent house is opposite from the ringer house in every respect. At one of these houses the girls will take whom they can, look after their own health, and get slung in jail at least four times a year due to their lack of advance warning.[24] The only value in being an independent girl over a ringer is that an independent is able to quit at anytime she wants while a ringer is bound by a contract to this job until she finds another, marries, or falls ill. [25]

Normally a “sporting girl”[26] will service anywhere from ten to fifteen costumers per day, working an eight hour shift where most of the business occurs sometime between 3pm to 11pm. The older girls are stuck with the rougher shifts, from 11pm to 7am and are forced to accommodate the drunks and the riff-raff. Saturdays and holidays are the busiest days, usually requiring some of the girls to work extra shifts; while Monday’s are so painstakingly slow one girl can usually entertain just fine.[27] Working overtime shifts it wasn’t uncommon for a girl to earn upwards of $5.00 extra a night. This money often went to pay the girls laundry bill and meals for the day, while a percentage of her two dollars every fifteen minutes earnings went to the house for the invaluable protection from the cops.

A typical House looks innocent enough from the outside and two types of people will usually approach the building, those looking for lodging and those looking for a night of fun. For the latter, the landlady of the establishment will usher the gentleman into a sitting room to await the ladies.[28] Those who are available are paraded around the room in scantily clad evening dresses or lounging dress until the gentleman in question chooses the woman he would like to spend his time with. The average age of the clientele who frequented the houses ranged from 30 to 40 years, most of them married. The outliers consisted of fairly the same amount of men in there fifties to young men in their early twenties.[29]

Often girls come into this business via a call house,[30] which is a customary place to start. These women usually have a day job as a waitress or usherette or drive-in-joint or movie extra with their phone number listed at headquarters. A girl may be called at anytime to go to an apartment for an hour or so to meet with a client. This type of work can bring anywhere from three to five dollars, but is unreliable and often much more work. Those girls who have been with a reliable house for a while usually carve out a nice life for themselves. They mingle with those in a much higher class then they would normally simply because of their clothes. They also take anywhere from four to seven days off a month and if the girl is truly smart she may take a couple months off besides this or manage to convince a man to take her on a trip somewhere. Living a vivacious, adventurous and restful life is the point of being a “sporting girl.”[31]

Notes[edit]

  1. Hostess, Honkytonk, “Honkytonk Hostess” Arkansas, 1933, In the Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Arnold,Mathew, “Which way to the honky tonk? An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds, Last modified May 2009, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2836&context=etd.
  11. Ibid
  12. Hendel, Richard. compiler. Vol. 13 of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Gender. Edited by Nancy Bercaw and Ted Ownby. 235,260, and 342-344. University of North Carolina Press, 1989
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Arnold,Mathew, “Which way to the honky tonk? An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds, Last modified May 2009, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2836&context=etd.
  16. Ibid
  17. Ibid
  18. “Prostitution: The Great Depression”,Accessed March 13, 2016, http://prostinfo.weebly.com/the-great-depression.htm.
  19. “Prostitution in the 1930s: My life as a Hooker”, Ken Magazine pg. 85, 1938, Last Modified May 5th, 1938, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/1930s_PROSTITUTE#.Vte8pBjdiRs.
  20. Ibid
  21. Ibid
  22. Ibid
  23. “Prostitution: The Great Depression”, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://prostinfo.weebly.com/the-great-depression.html
  24. “Prostitution in the 1930s: My life as a Hooker”, Ken Magazine pg. 85, 1938, Last Modified May 5th, 1938, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/1930s_PROSTITUTE#.Vte8pBjdiRs.
  25. “Prostitution: The Great Depression”, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://prostinfo.weebly.com/the-great-depression.htm.
  26. “Prostitution in the 1930s: My life as a Hooker”, Ken Magazine pg. 85, 1938, Last Modified May 5th, 1938, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/1930s_PROSTITUTE#.Vte8pBjdiRs.
  27. Ibid
  28. Hendel, Richard. compiler. Vol. 12 of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Music. Edited by Bill C. Malone. 52-54, and 80-83. University of North Carolina Press, 1989
  29. Ibid
  30. Ibid
  31. Ibid

References[edit]

• Hostess, Honkytonk, “Honkytonk Hostess” Arkansas, 1933, In the Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, U. North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

• Arnold, Mathew, “Which way to the honky tonk? An analysis of the Bakersfield and Nashville sounds, Last modified May 2009, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2836&context=etd.

• Hendel, Richard, eds. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 13: Gender. Edited by Bill C. Malone. Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina, 1989, S.v. “Prostitution.”

• Hendel, Richard. eds. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 12: Music. Edited by Bill C. Malone. Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina, 1989, S.v. “Honkytonk Music.”

• “Prostitution in the 1930s: My life as a Hooker”, Ken Magazine pg. 85, 1938, Last Modified May 5th, 1938, Accessed March 13, 2016, http://www.oldmagazinearticles.com/1930s_PROSTITUTE#.Vte8pBjdiRs.

• “Prostitution: The Great Depression”,Accessed March 13, 2016, http://prostinfo.weebly.com/the-great-depression.htm.

• Erdoes, Richard, Saloons of the Old West, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1979.

• Noel, J. Thomas, The City and the Saloon, University of Nebraska Press, 1982.