Cactus Tree

Album: Song To A Seagull (1968)

Songfacts®:

  • "Cactus Tree" is the final song on Joni Mitchell's debut album, Song To A Seagull. It's about several men who are in love with a woman, with each story tied together by the common theme of the unnamed woman's need for freedom and resistance to romantic commitment. In every case, the woman "thinks she loves them all" but ultimately is always "too busy being free."

    The song is written in the third person, but Mitchell is an autobiographical songwriter and the female subject in the song is herself. The feeling is that Mitchell is torn over her simultaneous need for love and her need for freedom, with freedom always ultimately winning out. Every verse tells the story of a lover, or an overview of several lovers, identified with archetypal personas like "a jouster and a jester and a man who owns a store."

    Mitchell has called herself a "serial monogamist." She carried the inner tension presented in this song throughout her life.
  • Mitchell has long resisted naming any of the people in this or any of her songs, saying it's best to keep them anonymous because people are free to imagine themselves as the characters in the songs when they don't know what she had in mind.

    On September 29, 2019, David Crosby said he was the man in the first verse. He had long been the prime suspect.

    There's a man who's been out sailing
    In a decade full of dreams
    And he takes her to a schooner
    And he treats her like a queen
    Bearing beads from California
    With their amber stones and green
    He has called her from the harbor
    He has kissed her with his freedom
    He has heard her off to starboard
    In the breaking and the breathing
    Of the water weeds
    While she was busy being free


    There's an interesting connection in this revelation to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Déjà vu." Crosby said that inspiration for that sung struck him while sailing.

    Also, the Crosby, Stills, & Nash song "Wooden Ships was written by Crosby while on his boat.
  • Mitchell wrote this shortly after seeing the Bob Dylan concert film Don't Look Back. When she first performed the song in 1967, she said that she hadn't been influenced by Dylan to that point, but was after watching the movie.

Comments: 2

  • Saint Tropez from ShanghaiThere is a palpable tension between love and freedom in the cactus tree. The "love concept" of the 70's play a crucial role in how Joni wrote the lyrics through the eyes of her youth. Freedom was in that period was an ultimate break-off from all 9-5 job, wealth acquisitions, societal behaviors, love of country traditions and conventions. I am surprised that a "man of faith" is not included in one verse cause that would have sum-up the "system". The woman is frankly searching for True love in others and herself. In the late 60's and early 70's the Answer to genuine/true and lasting love came in the form of the Jesus' movement. Conversely, I have seen and met many women in their 40's living up to their freedom in their youth and ending up desperately lonely and looking for True love to fill their empty hearts. The paradox is that True love is ultimately bonding but set us free. We can only assume that the woman found it otherwise the song doesn't offer any solution to her emptiness and search for love and freedom.
  • Mike from West Linn, OrI'm not sure that this is a fact ... more of a personal view. The lyrics here concern a woman who seems to yearn to be free and to be accomplishing that freedom. But her heart is "full and hollow, like a cactus tree". As I heard the lyrics the woman was very happy being free, going from man to man as she wished, living the free love life of the times.
    A few years later a female roommate of mine was appalled that I thought that. To her the woman was miserable and unhappy ... hollow. We argued about this more than once. A girlfriend, at about this same time saw it both ways, as I now do.
    In any case, there are few singer/songwriters that come close to Joni. There are some fine lyricists, but they can't express their emotions and feelings in their voices as Joni could. There are some excellent voices but their lyrics are bland or trite or so terribly obscure that they aren't worth the effort.
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