When the Cactus is in Bloom
Music/Lyrics: Jimmie Rodgers
Original Artist: Jimmie Rodgers
Original Album: Victor Records 23636 (1931)
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
The Mojave and Sonoran desert plains of the American southwest bring to mind visions of scorching heat, a distinct lack of water, and barren landscapes of dusty rocks. For much of the year, as the cattle prowl and coyote howl, this vision holds true. However, for brief periods during spring for some species and the summer monsoon for others, this bleak landscape is painted by a sea of color "When the Cactus is in Bloom" and the cowboys return for the roundup.
As a boy, before his time on the tracks, Jimmie Rodgers – "The Singing Brakeman" had embarked on a career as a traveling entertainer. His father had attempted to cut that short by getting him his first job as a water boy on the railroad. This position ironically put him in contact with rail workers and hobos who were happy to show Jimmie how to pick and strum a guitar. In early 1927, after a three year battle against tuberculosis, Jimmie gave up his job on the railroad which had carried him from New Orleans as far west as the Tucson, Arizona desert. Certainly he must have seen the desert in all its glory at least once before he returned to his childhood home of Meridien, Mississippi. Soon thereafter, Jimmie traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, where on April 18, 1927, he would re-launch his career in entertainment by performing on Asheville's first radio station (WWNC) with Otis Kuykendall. Before the year was complete he would enlist the Tenneva Ramblers to form The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, win an audition for Victor Records with the band but have it break up before they reached the recording studio the following day, record six songs during two sessions, and have one of those six songs – "Blue Yodel" also known as "T for Texas" – sell over half a million copies. Jimmie "The Blue Yodeler" Rodgers was a success and sold out performances wherever he went.
Jimmie was prolific in his songwriting during the next six years, recording an additional 104 songs over the course of 46 recording sessions before he finally succumbed to his tuberculosis on May 26, 1933. "When the Cactus is in Bloom" was recorded on June 13, 1931 in the midst of a week long string of recording sessions held in Louisville, Kentucky with the Carter Family. On the 20th anniversary of his death, his hometown of Meridien, Mississippi held the first Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival to celebrate his music, a tradition that continues to this day. Jimmie was considered by many as "The Father of Country Music" and as such was one of the first people inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame when it opened in 1961.
Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe released a cover of Jimmie's yodel-filled ode to the cowboy way of life as a Decca Records single in 1951. This "high lonesome" phase of Monroe's career followed the 1948 departure of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs from the Blue Grass Boys to form The Foggy Mountain Boys. This time period was also the origin of "Uncle Pen," another Bill Monroe bluegrass classic that Phish has covered many times.
No doubt in tribute to the Asheville origin of Jimmie's short but influential career, Phish somewhat thematically (since it followed "Divided Sky") debuted "When the Cactus is in Bloom" at the Asheville Civic Center (6/9/09) with their own Cactus on vocals. Mike's band would subsequently do no wrong by singing the song about time on the Great Divide at a couple of shows that followed in Fall 2009 and Spring 2010. Notable among these performances was the Toad's Place (3/6/10) version featuring Danny Barnes on banjo. Only Mike knows when again we'll hear this high and lonesome tune; hopefully it will be at roundup time away out west "When the Cactus is in Bloom."
Phish, “When the Cactus is in Bloom” – 6/9/09, Asheville, NC