|Song by Crosby, Stills & Nash from the album Crosby, Stills & Nash|
|Recorded||February 20, 1969|
|Crosby, Stills & Nash track listing|
|Song by Jefferson Airplane from the album Volunteers|
|Volunteers track listing|
“Wooden Ships” is a song written and composed by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills, of which versions were recorded both by Crosby, Stills & Nash and by Jefferson Airplane. It was written in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a boat named "Mayan" owned by Crosby, who composed the music, while Kantner and Stills wrote most of the lyrics.
Kantner could not be officially credited as one of the joint authors-composers of "Wooden Ships" on the original release of Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969) due to legal issues. Crosby said, "Paul called me up and said that he was having this major duke-out with this horrible guy (Matthew Katz) who was managing the band, and he was freezing everything their names were on. ’He might injunct the release of your record,’ he told me. So we didn’t put Paul’s name on it for a while. In later versions, we made it very certain that he wrote it with us. Of course, we evened things up with him with a whole mess of cash when the record went huge."
The song was released the same year by Kantner's band Jefferson Airplane, on the album Volunteers. Both versions are considered original versions of the song, although they differ slightly in wording and melody.
Crosby recorded a solo demo in March 1968 with the melody but no lyrics. Stills recorded his own demo the following month with most of the lyrics in place.
Both Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed the song in their respective sets at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. However, the CSNY performance is better-known, as it was included in the film and first album from the festival. The actual film soundtrack uses the studio album version. The soundtrack album uses the live performance. Jefferson Airplane's performance – over 21 minutes in length, including several extended jam sections – remained unreleased until the 2009 Woodstock Experience set.
"Wooden Ships" was written at the height of the Vietnam War, a time of great tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear-armed rivals in the Cold War. It has been likened to Tom Lehrer's "We Will All Go Together When We Go" and Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," in that it describes the consequences of an apocalyptic nuclear war. We "imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization."
The words of the song depict the horrors confronting the survivors of a nuclear holocaust in which the two sides have annihilated each other. A man from one side stumbles upon a man (or woman, as in Jefferson Airplane's version) from the other side and asks him/her, "Can you tell me, please, who won?" Since the question has no real meaning in the circumstances or even at all, it is left unanswered. To stay alive, they share purple berries that, presumably, have not been poisoned by radiation. The lyrics beg "silver people on the shoreline", described by David Crosby as "guys in radiation suits", to "let us be." As wooden ships, devoid of metal that would become radioactive from neutron activation, are carrying the survivors away from the shores. Radiation poisoning kills those who have not made it aboard. That grim tableau is described thus:
- Horror grips us as we watch you die
- All we can do is echo your anguished cries
- Stare as all human feelings die
- We are leaving you don't need us
It is also described in an [unsung] prelude, included in the lyric sheet:
- Black sails knifing through the pitchblende night
- Away from the radioactive landmass madness
- From the silver-suited people searching out
- Uncontaminated food and shelter on the shores
- No glowing metal on our ship of wood only
- Free happy crazy people naked in the universe