Responding to my Lead Belly post, the highly alert James O’Gara brought up Joni Mitchell’s The Boho Dance. I hadn’t known of this song, or that Mitchell had weighed in on the perennial folk-music debate about authenticity—thanks James!
The songwriters and musicians of her world, and going back at least to the 1930s, were at pains to show their solidarity with “the woikas” (as my friend Bob Cohen has taught me to pronounce it). They identified with the oppressed, which leaves them vulnerable to the charge of not really being the oppressed but just posing.
And here comes the wickedly deft Mitchell, capturing that history in three minutes and 54 seconds. She sings of going “down in the cellar” to the “Boho zone” to hear live music. Alas it’s “just another hard time band with Negro affectations.”
Nor does she absolve herself. A Joni Mitchell-esque confession follows:
“I was a hopeful in rooms like this, when I was working cheap.” She tried to look scuffed up but anyone who looked closely would notice that “the cleaner’s press was in my jeans.”
The lyrics turn then to address some unnamed contemporary of hers:
“You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now, even if good fortune allowed.”
Was it Neil Young? Tempting to guess, but it’s probably a composite of her intentionally dilapidated-looking friends. In any case, what better way to sum up the political Left’s well-known ambivalence toward success and individual distinction.
“It’s an old romance, the Boho dance; it hasn’t gone to sleep,” writes Joni Mitchell.
And it hasn’t since she wrote that song, which was in 1975.