Joni Mitchell: Cactus Tree

Written by Daniel McGrew


In category: Song of the Day

Published April 23, 2019

I didn’t know who Joni Mitchell was until I went to college and fell in love—and really I can’t think of better music with which to have ventured all that acute desire, doubt, and ambivalence. The first of her albums with which I became properly obsessed was Mitchell’s fourth, Blue (1971), which, yes, translates to “A Case of You” on repeat for… a year? More, probably. But I did eventually work my way through the rest of her astonishing output, including Song to a Seagull (1968), her debut, which ends with “Cactus Tree.”

This piece is so beautifully constructed; so much of the story is told with irresistible details like, “She has brought them to her senses.” I also love its use of negative space—three of only five stanzas in which the proper subject of the song is merely a concept, an absence: “While she’s so busy being free.” Only in the penultimate stanza (There’s a lady in the city…”) is “she” finally addressed.

You know that thing they say about how the Mona Lisa’s eyes look at you no matter where you stand? “Cactus Tree” does that. As I hear it over time, it tells various stories: about connection, about reticence, the unsolvable puzzle of “yes” or “no,” independence, loneliness. With that final paradox, “her heart is full and hollow,” this song does one of the most comforting things a song can: it embraces the incongruous—something senseless and entirely true. I always want to hear it. 

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Praised for his “lovely, nuanced tenor” (Boston Musical Intelligencer), Daniel McGrew is an active performer of a broad range of repertoires spanning opera, musical theatre, early, and new music. Recently at Tanglewood, he appeared as François in Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and participated in the annual Festival of Contemporary Music. An early music specialist, Daniel has performed Bach with conductors including Matthew Halls, John Harbison, David Hill, and Masaaki Suzuki, and toured India and the Baltic region with Juilliard415 and Yale University’s Schola Cantorum. He participated in the symphonic premier of James Lapine’s Sondheim on Sondheim with the Boston Pops Orchestra and appeared in David Loud’s Sondheim revue A Good Thing Going. Daniel holds degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Yale School of Music; he is currently pursuing a DMA at the University of Michigan.  Daniel McGrew will make his debut with NYFOS this June in Manning the Canon.

1 Comment

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    This is a song I first heard in 1968 and the images it evoked with the issues of lost, unrequited or regretted loves still resonates although now in my early 80’s I cannot escape its power. The richness of the lyrics make this not just a song but elevates it to poetry. Its imagery forces the listener to hear it again and again for the feelings it evokes. It is the cactus tree that begins to unravel the mystery though much in this remarkable work will always elude us.


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