"The Boho Dance" as written by and Joni Mitchell....
Down in the cellar in the Boho zone
I went looking for some sweet inspiration, oh well
Just another hard-time band
With Negro affectations
I was a hopeful in rooms like this
When I was working cheap
It's an old romance-the Boho dance
It hasn't gone to sleep

But even on the scuffle
The cleaner's press was in my jeans
And any eye for detail
Caught a little lace along the seams

And you were in the parking lot
Subterranean by your own design
The virtue of your style inscribed
On your contempt for mine
Jesus was a beggar, he was rich in grace
And Solomon kept his head in all his glory
It's just that some steps outside the Boho dance
Have a fascination for me

A camera pans the cocktail hour
Behind a blind of potted palms
And finds a lady in a Paris dress
With runs in her nylons

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don't you get sensitive on me
'Cause I know you're just too proud
You couldn't step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed

Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it's stricken from your uniform
But you can't get it out of your eyes

Nothing is capsulized in me
On either side of town
The streets were never really mine
Not mine these glamour gowns

Lyrics submitted by pumkinhed

"The Boho Dance" as written by Joni Mitchell

Lyrics © Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

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The Boho Dance song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentI'd have to say that I agree with what Orange has found, although I came to that conclusion intuitively while listening to the song. It took me a while to really internalize what she was saying, but it seemed to be a kind of equivocation playing itself out in her head … she'd associated with the "bohemian" crowd, the artists who go on about doing what they do sheerly for love of the purity of art and disdain the acceptance of their artwork by a larger audience as "selling out"—and perhaps this is what Joni thought some people were saying about her; she'd expanded beyond her range of hippie-folk and thus "betrayed" her fellow artists and first loyal audience, so she must be a "sell-out". Also, she seems to be commenting on the fact that regardless of their posturing, many supposedly-"deep", "intellectual" artists are simply affecting airs—in essence, they are no better than what they claim to despise (superficiality)—"bohemian" or "bourgeois", they're both just masks that a person wears to efficiently navigate their social predicament.

    Furthermore, reflecting upon it, she seems to have never felt as though she belonged to either group—she's neither one of the "bohemians" nor one of the "bourgeois" patrons, so what does that make her?

    It seems a very unresolved song, and there's beauty in that ambivalence. She seems to implore the listener to appreciate artists on an intensely individualistic and internal basis rather than on basis of their image and affectations.
    sumeragi_sluton October 10, 2007   Link
  • +1
    Link(s)There's a great discussion of this song by Lloyd Whitesell on pages 93 to 96 of his book "The music of Joni Mitchell". All the discussion of this song is available as a Google Books preview:

    dylanwiliamon July 31, 2013   Link
  • 0
    General Comment...I heard Bjork's version of this song and I can't get enough of it...but I can't for the life of me really understand what on Earth this song means...pleeeeaaaase someone help me out. The Boho Dance, I suppose, is her relationship with the Boho zone. How she strived there and stuff...then the song gets random and I blackout.
    Orange Morendoon July 23, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentOkay, I researched it and I kinda get it. To understand, you've really got to research what the Boho Dance is. Its a reference to Tom Wolfe's book "The Painted Word." The Boho Dance is the thing artists feel when they are against anything close to selling out. Even becoming celebrated by rich investors. Moving on from the Boho Dance to having your work celebrated is Consummation (a step closer to selling out as the Bohos see it). In this song, the narrator has since strayed from the Boho Dance but hasn't sold out either. This song is still perplexing...a little. The last stanza is her coming to the conclusion that she isn't part of this artistic process at all (Boho Dance and Consummation). I think she finds that she's just a woman doing what she loves. As I read from a website, this song is a personal story of Joni's.
    Orange Morendoon July 24, 2007   Link
  • 0
    My OpinionI like how

    "And any eye for detail"

    can be heard as

    "Any IFOR detail".

    centralvenouscatheteron October 21, 2010   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationThis is probably a deeply personal song, although it could be JM's reference to a friend or someone else whose struggle with success versus personal integrity she identified with at the time (JM was certainly no Edith, vulnerable to any King Pin, but she understood the allure, from "both sides now!") She could hardly be afraid of selling out at this point in her career, but the frustration with being boorishly accused of same is irresistible grist for her song mill. She started managing and marketing herself before her first marriage and after the breakup with Chuck Mitchell and was a serious businesswoman when it came to handling her own purse strings from then on. She "sold out" way back when she stopped playing uke in small clubs for cigarette money. The perfection and professionalism with which she honed her various crafts (the woman is primarily a painter, remember) is far too fierce for mere self-flagellation. In the end I don't know the exact boundary lines between the artist herself and the voice of the song, but this is a recurring theme throughout her career. Earlier there was "For Free" (I play if you have the money) and later "Taming The Tiger" (I'm a runaway from the record biz.....boring!). By the time the last album "Shine" came along she seemed truly retired from this struggle with fame, success, whatever. In retreat, victoriously so. I would love to read her poetry and fiction but my impression is that she does not pursue these lines because she is not as good at them as she would like to be. Her excellence as painter, musician, singer, etc. must set some pretty high bars of expectation?
    freddskyon March 07, 2013   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationA section in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word apparently describes The Boho Dance as an art mating ritual between a modern artist and a patron, whereby the artist attempts the ticklish task of hawking his or her artistic output while maintaining a self-image of impecunious bohemian purity.

    While the book focusses on the visual art scene, this song also concerns itself with the equivalent process in the music industry. It looks back on the journey the narrator has taken for her music to become successful - the struggle to maintain integrity while keeping the accountants happy. Since it’s told in the first person, and seems more autobiographical than other songs on the album, it seems safe to assume it’s about Ms Mitchell herself, though the only clue that the narrator is even female comes in the last line, ‘Not mine these glamour gowns’.

    In some ways this song echoes The Jungle Line - both are first person, the narrator is observing a band in a cellar venue, and both are the second track on their sides of the original vinyl album. It’s even possible this song is also set in New York, where Ms Mitchell began her solo musical career, though the location isn’t specified in the lyrics.

    It’s a song about looking back from a certain level of success to its more humble, comparatively cash-starved beginnings. In this it echoes Ms Mitchell’s earlier ‘For Free’ and ‘For the Roses’. The song also contrasts her own approach with that of the ‘you’ introduced in the second verse, somebody who seems to be a visual artist still very much caught up in Boho Dancing.

    The first verse of the song begins with the narrator descending from her now-comfortable lifestyle into a music cellar in a counterculture part of the city - and it has to be a city of some size to have its own bohemian zone. She’s looking for some music with authenticity that might inspire her, but finds only something tired, imitative and hackneyed. Oh well.
    This sets her thinking about the beginnings of her own musical career, when she played as an unknown in places like this. She acknowledges the pull that those times still have on her, that striving for commercial success while retaining artistic purity.

    I’m guessing ‘the scuffle’ is a generic term for the dusty, worn-out stages she performed her music on, though the word also suggests the struggle she had to get her songs heard back then. But even in those bohemian venues, she put some effort into what she wore, something that would have been anathema to the more self-regarding bohemian performers - her jeans were cleaned and pressed, and she’d accessorised her clothes with lace.

    In the second verse we’re introduced to the character referred to only as ‘you’. I’m assuming it’s a man, though the only indication of this is that he’s compared to a ‘priest’ in the last verse. And that he’s arrogant. Is he literally in an underground car park? Or is that symbolic of his below street level existence (extra-genuine bohemian that he is)? Perhaps he lives or works in an underground studio because it’s cheap. Perhaps he’s vandalising the car park by painting on the walls (which would provide another link with The Jungle Line, and with ‘freedom scribbled in the subways’ in Shadows and Light). Perhaps it’s even symbolic of his bank balance. It’s hard to tell. The cellar bar the song started in was below street level, so perhaps it connects through to this car park.
    By being scornful of her success (and as he sees it, her capitulation to the system), he implies that his own position is the morally pure one of ‘noble poverty’, where realising significant money for your art invalidates it. (This is an argument that still goes on - Grayson Perry has some interesting things to say about it.)
    She tries to mollify him by citing two contrasting Biblical examples, firstly that of Jesus being incorruptible and admirable in his life of poverty, and then the counter example of Solomon maintaining his integrity despite his great wealth. Therefore it’s possible, she argues, to remain true to your ideals whether you’re rich or poor. She insists she’s remained true to hers, even though her drive to achieve has taken her beyond this particular masquerade (using the combined image both of taking a different dance step to those of the Boho Dance, and of stepping outside of it).

    There follows the description of an expensively-dressed lady at an elegant televised event who has ladders in her stockings. This might mean that even the rich can have a bohemian streak (albeit accidental), or that the lady is poor even though she sits among the wealthy, or that anyone can appear bohemian, that there’s no inherent honour in it. It’s also possible that this lady is the narrator, which would correlate with the mention of ‘glamour gowns’ at the end of the song.

    The third verse begins by considering the books, presumably about artists, which show that achieving wealth, while at first welcome, can in the end ruin the artist’s creativity by tethering it to financial gain, rather than it remaining a pure reflection of the artist’s intent. On the other hand there are books which extol artists who were poor and unsuccessful during their lifetimes yet remained true to their artistic vision.
    She accuses the ‘you’ of feigned sensitivity, because it’s so much at odds with the pride which she knows drives him. She says he would be unable to leave the systematised push-pull of maintaining the artifice of bohemian credibility, even if he were to make enough money to move beyond it; that while he accuses others of being slaves to money, he himself exhibits an equally unhealthy slavery to the Boho Dance.

    While his identity (visual and otherwise) is that of a bohemian poor-but-true artist, he’s lured by money in much the same way as a celibate priest is drawn to sex.

    She, on the other hand, never felt her identity was defined by being poor (‘the streets’), just as it now isn’t defined by being well-off (‘these glamour gowns’). And since she never fully identified with either extreme, those identities never fully defined her.
    TrueThomason February 03, 2016   Link

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