Wooden Ships

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"Wooden Ships"
Song by Crosby, Stills & Nash
from the album Crosby, Stills & Nash
RecordedFebruary 20, 1969
GenrePsychedelic rock, blues rock, jazz rock
Songwriter(s)David Crosby
Paul Kantner
Stephen Stills
Producer(s)David Crosby
Graham Nash
Stephen Stills
"Wooden Ships"
Song by Jefferson Airplane
from the album Volunteers
RecordedApril 14 & 22, 1969[1]
GenrePsychedelic rock
LabelRCA Records
Composer(s)David Crosby
Lyricist(s)Paul Kantner
Stephen Stills
Producer(s)Al Schmitt

"Wooden Ships" is a song written and composed by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills, of which versions were eventually recorded both by Crosby, Stills & Nash and by Jefferson Airplane; Kantner was a founding member of the latter group. It was written and composed in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a boat named the Mayan, owned by Crosby, who composed the music, while Kantner and Stills wrote most of the lyrics.[2]


Kantner could not be credited as one of the joint authors-composers of "Wooden Ships" on the original May 1969 release of Crosby, Stills & Nash, because he was embroiled in legal disputes with Jefferson Airplane's then manager, Matthew Katz. Crosby said, "Paul called me up and said that he was having this major duke-out with this horrible guy 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."[3]

The song was also released by Kantner's band Jefferson Airplane in November 1969 on the album Volunteers. The two versions differ slightly in lyrics 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. This demo was subsequently released in 2007 on Stills' Just Roll Tape album.

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 film's soundtrack uses the studio album version, while the soundtrack album has the live performance. Jefferson Airplane's performance – which ran to over 21 minutes in length and included 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.[2] According to the liner notes, the writers "imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization."[4] This represents one of Kantner's recurring themes, to which he would return again in the 1970 concept album Blows Against the Empire.[5]

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", as a result of which they "haven't got sick once" (iodine pills, which protect against radioactive iodine-131 in nuclear fallout).[citation needed] The lyrics beg "silver people on the shoreline," described by David Crosby as "guys in radiation suits," to "let us be."[2] As the 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 [2]

In popular culture[edit]

The song is alluded to in Neil Young's 1986 song "Hippie Dream" from the album Landing on Water in the refrain "The wooden ships/were just a hippie dream" which is later altered to "The wooden ships are a hippie dream/capsized in excess/if you know what I mean".

In 1975 Mike Friedrich and Steve Leialoha adapted the song into graphic format for issue #3 of the alternative Science-fiction and Fantasy magazine Star*Reach.

Jackson Browne later asked David Crosby, "What about the guys who can't escape?" - referring to those who get left behind after the wooden ships have set sail. Crosby said, "Well, fuck 'em," and Browne, taken aback by Crosby's answer (which Crosby later regretted), wrote his 1973 song "For Everyman" in response. [6]


Crosby, Stills & Nash version[edit]


Jefferson Airplane version[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers (2004, CD)". Discogs.
  2. ^ a b c d "The Story Behind 'Wooden Ships'". The Hangar. Got A Revolution.com. Archived from the original on 2012-11-16. Retrieved 2012-11-06.
  3. ^ David Crosby. "Wooden Ships".
  4. ^ Wooden Ships (liner notes). 1991.
  5. ^ "Paul Kantner's Wooden Ships – Blows Against The Empire: Hi Jack / Have You Seen The Stars Tonight / Starship". Paste Magazine. August 11, 2011.
  6. ^ Zimmer, Dave, Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, Da Capo Books, p.153)