February 9, 2020 What is a Honky-Tonk Parade?


In the song "It's Only A Paper Moon" (1933 by Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, and Billy Rose) there's the line, "Without your love, it's a honky-tonk parade." You can search online to learn what the phrase "paper moon" references, but there's only dim speculation out there about what could be meant by "honky-tonk parade."

Years ago I asked my dad, "Dad, what's a honky-tonk parade?" to which he replied, expectedly, "You don't know what a honky-tonk parade is!?" And that's the point, I guess - Yip Harburg used that line with the presumption that nobody (or hardly anybody) would fail to get the reference, at least in 1933 and if you lived near an urban area. My dad, Ray Bopp, who grew up in Chicago in the 1920s-'40s, provided an answer, which I paraphrase from memory:

"First, you had to get a parade permit from the city of Chicago" - at this point I thought he was pulling my leg, but no - "then you'd get a flat-bed truck and put a sign on it to advertise your bar, your honky-tonk." According to online sources, so far the earliest published use of "honky-tonk" is from the Peoria (130 miles southwest of Chicago) Journal, June 28, 1874, where "The police spent a busy day today raiding the bagnios and honkytonks." My dad remembered honky-tonks as hole-in-the-wall bars with a tiny stage, a small combo for dance music, and pretty waitresses to serve drinks to the customers. 

Dad continues: "So you want to advertise your bar - you've got your parade permit and your flatbed truck; you put a big sign on the back of the truck that says 'Joe's Bar' or whatever, but - this is important - it's got to include the words 'girls-Girls-GIRLS!' You have one or two of the waitresses on the back of the truck, too, and maybe the saxophone player from the band, and then you drive all around town. That's it. A honky-tonk parade. It's a dismissive term: 'oh hot-dog, there goes a honky-tonk parade, wahoo...'"

So there you go; according to Yip Harburg, without your love, life's a phony moon, a circus, a honky-tonk parade. Here are a couple examples along the lines of what my dad described:

Source: https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt702v2c8t1s_46_1

Source: https://shilohmuseum.org/project/page/3/