Honky Tonkin': The Jukebox Years



“I’m just an old Jukebox Junkie, spending my time, spending my money. Feeding this habit with hardcore country..” Possibly one of the most recognizable songs about enjoying a spin on the ole Jukebox from one of my heroes Ken Mellons, who by the way has a new album coming out soon. Here's some more info.


Have you ever wondered why we are so enamored by a dome shaped slab of glass, and plastic tucked at the end of a bar?  I think the love affair with the jukebox is especially strong in country music. I conducted a very basic search, and found no less than 120 country songs with the term "jukebox".


As early as the 1940’s you might’ve heard “Driving Nails In My Coffin” playing on a jukebox at the Broken Spoke, and similar establishments all across America.

The Jukebox was an essential part of culture for the displaced working class southern transplant now working in the ever expanding urban landscapes of industrial America. I expand on this observation in my series “Honky Tonkin”


The purpose of this blog post is to explore the explicable link between the jukebox, and honky tonk music. Where did these music machines came from, and why?  In 1889, the first jukebox was created by Louis Glass and William S. Arnold. It was coin-operated, and like most era jukeboxes, one record at a time was played.



Circa Nov 1889 "The World's First Jukebox"


The most notable exception was the Gabel Automatic Entertainer patented by John Gabel in 1916. Hobart C. Niblack patented a machine that could automatically switch from record to record in 1918. That led to the Automated Musical Instrument Company creating the first jukebox where the consumer could change the selection at will, and became commercially available in 1927.



Jukeboxes were originally called “Coin-Operated Phonographs” and primarily played classical music. The machine didn’t project the sound, and instead the consumer would need to put a stethoscope-style listening tubes to their ear for the cost of a nickel. Phonograph parlors immediately became a hit. The Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, where the machine made its debut netted over $1000 in its first six months.


In 1946, after the end of the war, the jukebox surged back into popularity. The designs become flashier. The bright lights illuminated the near surfaces through glass panels making it easier to read the song selections. Additionally the more open designs allowed the jukebox junkie to see the move and whirl as their pick is selected and played in real time.



How did this incredibly useful, and fun innovation impact country music? In several ways. Firstly, the jukebox became a major resource for record companies, now records could be ranked based on plays.. Sound familiar? A representative from what is now known as Billboard magazine would collect the data from each leading Jukebox establishment, and produce the chart.



The chart was known as the Most Played Juke Box Folk Records. As singles would hit the jukeboxes first and its success with audiences would determine whether or not the record would be released officially, and if the artist earned a record label deal. Around 75% of records in the U.S. were on jukeboxes in the 1940s. I marvel at how nothing really changes. Spotify is the new jukebox y'all.. It truly is..


Unsurprising is how he Jukebox got its name from the term “jook organ” which itself was mostly derived from the Gullah term “juke” which meant “to dance.” This would eventually lead to establishments with these machines to be called “Juke joints.” There was a strong focus on records you could dance to like honky tonk music. Again, unsurprising how things have not really changed because "If you're gonna play in Texas.."


The audience the propelled the jukebox to critical success were working class folks, the backbone of America. A hard day’s work deserves a cold beer, and a whirl on the dance floor. Unlike radio, jukeboxes were playing music for the common folks such as blues, folk, and hillbilly music. This was music that generally speaking was not played on radio with some exceptions of course.


I don't want to downplay the fact that the honky tonks or local taverns were open during work hours. Many that were unemployed and down on their luck would make theirway to the local tavern to drink away their sorrows, and medicate their fears of an uncertain future. Other than the danceable beat many popular honky tonk songs were seriously sad. "Driving Nails In My Coffin", and "Walking The Floor (Over You) are not happy cheery songs y'all. And this 1941 Jimmy Davis classic echoed the same sorrowful sentiments of many songs that have become country music standards.This was a top hit for Jimmie



Jimmie Davis "I Hung My Head, and Cried" (1941)


The hillbilly songs played on the jukebox were not exactly pages from the old burgundy church hymnals, some of us grew up singing from. The songs were about loss ,isolation, broken-hearts, and cheating. The established music industry hacks viewed the "jukebox” with disdain, due to its “associations” with rural folks and people of color. Various companies in the 40s even claimed the term came from European Elizabethan English to shirk the stereotypes.


Country music was often sorted into Billboard’s “Juke Box Hillbilly Records” or the “Juke Box Folk Records” chart until 1949, with the creation/renaming of “Country & Western chart.” Ernest Tubb’s “Try Me One More Time” is an example of one of these hits on the “Most Played Juke Box Folk Records” chart (which explicitly also included “hillbilly” music, spirituals and “cowboy songs”). 



Keep in mind that the top pop artists of the day were The Andrew Sisters, Glen Miller, and Bing Crosby. Honky tonk music was often about what happens after dark in a seedy dive bar while consuming everything from locally distilled moonshine to Kentucky's finest.

The environments of honky tonks encouraged artists to double down on realistic, and relevant themes while adopting a hard driving playing style often called “sock rhythm” to make the songs easier to dance to. 


Despite the early bias of the industry elites, the honky tonk music, and culture managed to prevail and become an iconic part of American music in great part due to the jukebox innovation. Jukeboxes expanded the reach of honky tonk music by delivering it straight to the working class at their place of leisure-the honky tonks.


Unfortunately, the jukebox faded in popularity due to the increasingly lower costs for home phonographs and LP’s. Also, in the 1950s and 60s and 70s folk rock became the music of choice for most eateries. These changes resulted in less and less jukeboxes being manufactured, and jukeboxes being relegated to diners and establishments catering to nostalgia type themes. Despite this, companies like Rock-Ola still make classic-style jukeboxes. Today, the jukebox is cherished as an enduring symbol of honky tonk music, and American culture.



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