Cactus Tree

Album: Song To A Seagull (1968)
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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: 4

  • Karma from NyShe's singing about being free and the guys who want her to settle down with them. She thinks she might love them all but she doesn't want to settle down. She doesn't want to hurt them but hey, would you settle down if you looked like Joni, had her intelligence and talent and was just getting started? I know I wouldn't. But yeah, it must have hurt to have so many wanting a committment from her; kinda selfish on their part in my humble opinion. Nonetheless, I think it made her feel bad...guilty...that they were hurt. She still wanted to see them but she didn't want to see one of them only and be tied down. Good for her.
  • David Lew from Canada Not sure if the "Woman" (cough. cough, Joni) was unhappy at all as some say. Believe the woman in the song Loved each and every man in to the depth of her soul. The line "she fears that one will ask for eternity", implies marriage. This was written when Mitchell's career was taking off and skyrocketing, she said multiple times how her Grandmother had ambitions, got married and settled. Joni always had the sense her Grandmother had longed for more even though she never complained about her life. Twas fear JM had that settling and marrying would end her career. Hence the the line "She will Love them when she sees them, they will lose her if they follow". Only after watching and reading so many interviews, concluded Joni truly Loved them all, fully and completely. As she said "I'm a serial monogamist". Some may debate a loneliness moving from one relationship to another and not settling down. To them I say, Joni was only in her early 20's when writing this, even if it sounds like a it takes place over a lifetime. Shows Joni lived to the fullest. Many young folks don't want to settle that young, life is starting and it's a big wide world to discover. In many ways there is a lot to admire here, a terrific life filled with passion, getting to meet and understand new different types of people and personalities. Each one helps us develop, grow and mature. If you read or listen to any of the men Mitchell dated (a few referred to in this song), all still smile when ask and/or are talking about her, they still smile, Love and respect her. She is friends with most of them to this day.

    For those who've had children in their late teens to early twenties, as parents we usually are concerned when they meet someone and want to settle. Usually saying 'there's lots of fish in the sea' (hate that expression) and 'what's the rush, there is lots of time'. No, don't believe Joni was writing about a sad and lonely person. Rather one who was living, loved over and over again, completely. Even if a fear of a lifelong commitment made her run, because she was so full of passion and love. Each time she met someone else and loved again.

    Fabulous song, terrific lyrics which can take on a different meaning to each listener, not once but many times over the years. The Guitar is also very underrated!
  • 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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