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

© April 1, 1968; Siquomb Publishing Corp


Cactus Tree was written on October 12, 1967. Joni introduced it this way on that date at the Second Fret in Philadelphia:

Three nights ago I went to a movie in New York City – a Bob Dylan movie. The new Bob Dylan and Joan Baez live feature movie [ed: Don't Look Back]. And I’d never seen Dylan perform, you see, so I wondered why David Blue and Eric Andersen, though they were supposed to be imitators of Dylan, neither one of them were alike and I found out that Eric has Dylan’s sense of humour and David Blue is his grouchiness. At least that is in my humble opinion. But, uh, I’m about to be influenced by Mr. Dylan. You see, I’m late to this and everybody who started out as songwriters, at this point has been influenced by Mr. Dylan. Well, to this point, I don’t think I have. At least, I haven’t noticed. This is, by the way it’s a photograph of me, but it’s not intended to impress you. It’s a cue card for me. This song I just wrote today, so if you notice the melody sort of varies from verse to verse it’s because I haven’t really decided on a few things so I’m throwing them all out at you. Every time I hear whispering, I’ll take that part out. 'Doesn't hold their attention there'...

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Transcriptions of Cactus Tree

Cactus Tree has been recorded by 45 other artists

  • Adams, Julie  (from "Julie Adams & The Mountain Stage Band - Live" - 1997)
  • Alberstein, Chava  (- )
  • Ånnevik, Frida (- )
  • Ashbrook, Daphne (from "All Good Dreamers" - 2014)
  • Boland, Ettie  (from "Ettie Boland and Omni Art" - 2012)
  • Cactus Acoustic Duo (- )
  • Collins, Judy (from "Bohemian" - 2011)
  • Colvin, Shawn  (- )
  • d'Armand, Jeannette (from "Stage Road" - 2009)
  • ENiid (- 2014)
  • Eshleman, Eric  (from "Peace of Mind" - 2007)
  • Farkasember, Jay (- )
  • Fasano, Barbara (from "Busy Being Free" - 2015)
  • Flynn, Richard (- 2012)
  • Fox, Lauren (from "Love, Lust, Fear & Freedom: The Songs of Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen" - 2013)
  • Gamble, William (from "Wild Bill and the Arkanauts" - 2008)
  • Geraldine (from "Geraldine" - 1971)
  • Gill Sandell & Chris T-T (from "Walk Away, Walk Away" - 2015)
  • Helen, Josepha (from "Joni" - 2021)
  • Herring, Caroline (from "Golden Apples Of The Sun" - 2009)
  • Indian Hill High School 2023 Europe Tour Choir (from "Indian Hill Choirs Europe Choir Tour Send-Off Concert (Live)" - 2023)
  • Iris Koch - Werner Tharandt (from "Zündholz" - 1978)
  • Irma Schultz Keller (from "Blank is sånger av Joni Mitchell" - 2010)
  • Jättner, Klas  (- )
  • Johnson, Coale (- 2020)
  • King, Kristin (- 2010)
  • Laine, Erica (- 2014)
  • Marianne Trudel / Karen Young (from "Portraits:Songs of Joni Mitchell" - 2018)
  • Marquette, Jacques  (from "Covid Covers" - 2020)
  • Moss, Ann (from "Currents" - 2013)
  • Nadler, Marissa (from "Covers Volume 1" - 2010)
  • Omilian, Nina  (from "(Pure)" - 2014)
  • Restless Wind (- 2004)
  • Sauce (from "Waiting For Godiva" - 2002)
  • Simpson, Martin (from "Skydancers (Deluxe Version)" - 2024)
  • Sir Babygirl (from "Golden Bday: The Mixtape" - 2021)
  • Skinner, Belle (from "Belle-Skinner Sings Joni Mitchell Live" - 2022)
  • Stellar (from "Digital Single" - 2021)
  • The Harmony Keepers (from "A Tribute To Our Lady Of The Canyon" - 2023)
  • The Steve Klink Trio (from "Places To Come From, Places To Go" - 2002)
  • The Travelers (from "Tomorrow Is A Long Time" - )
  • Tuck, Hailey (from "Junk" - 2018)
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star (from "Lullaby Versions of Joni Mitchell" - 2021)
  • Verheyen, Carl  (from "Solo Guitar Improvisations" - 2001)
  • Volker Niehusmann & Christiane Weber (from "Another Blue" - 1997)
  • [more information on recordings by other artists]


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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...