Thursday, May 28, 2015

Honky Tonk Angels?


I love this old photo of my mother (right), her sister and two of their cousins. I've used it in a blog before and my daughter, who also loves the photo, shared it on Facebook this week. Her husband had made a comment about her family being 'plains billies' because there were no hills in Iowa or she would have come from hillbilly stock. There was a bunch of funny and lively remarks before it finally quieted down.

I'm using the photo to illustrate this post about Honky Tonk Angels even though my mother was probably the furthest example of  a Honky Tonk Angel (women who hung around bars [honky tonks] dancing with anyone who would buy them a drink) as you could find. Mom wouldn't even go into a bar. When the ten-o'clock whistle blew on a Saturday night signaling time to go home and Dad was still in the pool hall, Mom would send my little sister and me in to drag him out. I think she sent us innocent little girls instead of my older brother just to embarrass dad in front of his friends.

Following World War II it was generally accepted that life would return to the way it was before the war interrupted. The women, who had taken on the jobs and roles traditionally held by the men while they were off fighting, were expected to go back to being housewives, mothers, "the little woman" waiting patiently at home with supper on the stove. But after a taste of independence from the male-dominated era, not all women were content to return to their domestic, submissive ways.

There were more divorces and delinquency than ever before. Someone had to be blamed and it was women - the honky tonk angels Hank Thompson sang about in his 1952 hit song, The Wild Side of Life. The Billboard Country Charts hit, written by Arlie Carter and William Warren, spent fifteen weeks at #1. It contained these lyrics: "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels. I might have known you'd never make a wife. You gave up the only one who ever loved you and went back to the wild side of life. The glamour of the gay night life has lured you to the places where the wine and liquor flows - where you wait to be anybody's baby and forget the truest love you'll ever know." 

If ever a song was begging for a rebuttal by a woman, this was it. But the country music scene of that time was dominated by male singers. There were no female super stars.


Then Jay Miller wrote It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels in answer to The Wild Side of Life and Kitty Wells recorded it. The song was considered so controversial it was banned by the NBC radio network and Wells was prohibited from performing it on the Grand Ole' Opry. But the song became a hit anyway and spent six weeks on Billboard's country charts. Kitty Wells was the first female singer to top the country music charts.

I never asked my mom why the song was one of her favorites; I was just aware that it was. Whenever it came on the radio she sang along:

"As I sit here tonight the jukebox playin'
The tune about the wild side of life 
As I listen to the words you are sayin'
It brings memories when I was a trusting wife

It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they're still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong

It's a shame that all the blame is on us women
It's not true that only you men feel the same
From the start most every heart that's ever broken
Was because there always was a man to blame."

There were some parallels in their lives: Mom & Kitty both born in 1919 and married in 1937; both had a son and two daughters (Mom added a second son later). I would guess that Mom liked the song so much because it did question the male-female double standard. Or maybe she just liked the tune or Kitty's voice.
I only know It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels became a favorite song of mine, too. I rarely hear it anymore, but when I do, I sing along just as Mom did - and think about both Mom and Kitty.   ....it's a shame that all the blame is on us women.........

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