Cactus Tree

Cactus Tree

I mentioned in my first post that I am passionate about many things. This personal blog gives me the opportunity to write about them, so here we go…

Music is right at the top of the things I am most passionate about. I enjoy many types of music, and I love to listen to music live, recorded, and from the guitar sitting on my lap. Joni Mitchell has always been at the top of my list of favorite singer / songwriters. I am in the process of reading Reckless Daughter, a biography of her life by David Yaffe. It is a fascinating read about a fascinating woman.

Her first album was Song to a Seagull, which was recorded in 1967 and released in March of 1968 on the Reprise label. The album was produced by David Crosby, and includes 10 songs. Joni had written several songs that became hits for other performers (“Both Sides Now”, “Chelsea Morning”, “The Circle Game”), but none of those songs appeared on this album. At this early point in her career she had already written enough songs for several albums.

Joni accompanies herself on guitar, with Steven Stills taking a turn on the bass for “Night In The City”. There has been much debate about the quality of Crosby’s recording. Joni is quoted in Yaffe’s book: …”I don’t know how he screwed up the sound the way he did. It’s not on the masters. There was hiss on the tapes, but not on the masters.” I admit I don’t have the most discerning of ears, but I am not bothered in the least by the quality of the recording. What I hear is a beautiful voice, beautiful music and lyrics of such a personal nature that it takes my breath away every time I hear the album.

The final song on the album, and my personal favorite, is “Cactus Tree”. Joni says in Yaffe’s book that she was inspired to write it after watching Don’t Look Back, the documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain. I love her quote from the book: ” ‘Cactus Tree’ is about a woman who has a lot of suitors and none of them are quite right. And it’s ironic: She’s so busy being free…”

I love the structure of this song. The cactus tree does not make its appearance until the final verse. All of the verses that come before bring the listener to understand the comparison of the woman’s heart to a cactus tree. One of her suitors says, “Wish you were beside me, we can make it if we try.” Heartbreaking.

Here is the final verse:

Photo by Roger Miller, circa 1971, in the mountains near Phoenix, Arizona.

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.
-Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is a self taught, and very imaginative, guitarist. She started by learning to play the ukulele, then progressed to the guitar. She was intrigued by open tunings that had been used by guitar players for years.  But she began to devise her own tunings so that she could make the kind of music that she heard in her head, and the kind of sound that could compliment her three octave range as a singer.

The internet is a fantastic tool for guitarists. With very little effort, you  can find the chords to almost any song. I was delighted to discover that Cactus Tree is recorded in Open D tuning, where the guitar strings are tuned as follows: D A D F# A D. This is a break for me, as I am somewhat familiar with the tuning…and the key of D actually suits my voice. Or what there is left of it.

Maybe one day I’ll post a link to a recording of me singing and playing Cactus Tree. Or here’s a better idea: follow this link to a live recording of Joni Mitchell performing the song in 1974.