Song Lyrics

Cactus Tree

by Joni Mitchell

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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 a man who's climbed a mountain
And he's calling out her name
And he hopes her heart can hear
Three thousand miles he calls again
He can think her there beside him
He can miss her just the same
He has missed her in the forest
While he showed her all the flowers
And the branches sang the chorus
As he climbed the scaley towers
Of a forest tree
While she was somewhere being free

There's a man who's sent a letter
And he's waiting for reply
He has asked her of her travels
Since the day they said goodbye
He writes "Wish you were beside me
We can make it if we try"
He has seen her at the office
With her name on all his papers
Thru the sharing of the profits
He will find it hard to shake her
From his memory
And she's so busy being free

There's a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There's the one who's thinking of her
There's the one who sometimes calls
There's the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defenses
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity
And she's so busy being free

There's a man who sends her medals
He is bleeding from the war
There's a jouster and a jester
And a man who owns a store
There's a drummer and a dreamer
And you know there may be more
She will love them when she sees them
They will lose her if they follow
And she only means to please them
And her heart is full and hollow
Like a cactus tree *
While she's so busy being free

© 1968; Siquomb Publishing Company

Footnotes to Cactus Tree

"Cactus Tree"

In a 1970 interview, Joni says, " I wrote a song called 'Cactus Tree' which is Dylan influenced in its melody and even its style. I even lengthen my A's when I sing it because it sings better. It's all sort of in a monotone - I wrote it after I saw 'Don't Look Back' which I think left a big impression on me."

Literally, a "cactus tree" is the Saguaro cactus found only in the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona and northern Mexico. Joni's line "And her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree" could be a metaphor for how the cacti use and store water. Many features assist the saguaro in conserving that most precious of desert commodities.

Accordion-like pleats allow the saguaro to expand and hold water collected through the roots. Spongy flesh in the trunk and branches serves as a reservoir where water is stored as a slow to evaporate gelatin like substance. Unlike most plants, the saguaro cactus has no conventional leaves, which transpire large amounts of water. The food-making process of photosynthesis normally carried out by green leaves is performed in the trunk and branches. Spines discourage animals from taking the cactus' moisture, shade the plant, and shield it from drying winds. Waxy skin aids in reducing moisture loss.

The saguaro collects water with a network of roots that lies about 3 inches below the surface and stretches as far out from the main stem as the saguaro is tall. In a single rainfall, these shallow roots, along with special small root hairs that grow in response to moisture, may soak up as much as 200 gallons of water, enough to last the saguaro a year.

The saguaro cactus then - depending on the time of year and amount of rainfall - is sometimes full and sometimes hollow... just like Joni's character's heart.

Guitar Transcriptions of Cactus Tree

Cactus Tree has been recorded by 30 others

Comments on Cactus Tree

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MissUSchelly on

Her mastery of words mixed with music is mind blowing! The plight of a selfish woman described so beautifully in the days when longing was drawn out over long stretches of time (compared to today's instant reactions to everything). She inspires me to write.

suzylizette on

phenry, thanks for sharing your first hand info! Very neat that you knew her all the way back then! :)

I LOVE this song, so sweet, I also love the live version.

phenry on

Joni's first album was really a trip for me. So many of the songs on it were totally new, in fact only three were songs she'd been playing before. This song, in particular, jumped out at me when I first played the album. It brought to mind something Joni had told me back at the Cellar. It was a small place and it was always SRO when she played. There was the usual gang of loyal college kids who were already die-hard Joni fans and then there were these guys... didn't know them, never saw them before, a whole bunch of them. Joni told me she'd become aware of them gradually and that they were all guys who had 'dropped out', quit school or jobs and literally followed her from gig to gig, Toronto, New York, Boston, Philly, Detroit, all over the circuit, and they were always trying to get back to the dressing room to see her. It was up to me to turn them away which is why Joni explained this to me... I'm pretty sure this is at least part of where the idea for this song originated.

sofree2day on

Simply beautiful music and lyrics....This song to me brings back the days when my heart was full & hollow like a Cactus Tree.....& I remember the legends...

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