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The Story Behind The Song: Crosby, Stills & Nash's apocalyptic tableau 'Wooden Ships'

‘Wooden Ships’ is one of the best-loved tracks by countercultural super-trio Crosby, Stills & Nash. The song was composed by David Crosby and Stephen Stills alongside Paul Kantner, the guitarist of Jefferson Airplane. 

The track was written aboard Crosby’s boat, the Mayan, in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which imbued the effort with its basic themes. The story goes that Crosby composed the music, whilst Kantner and Stills penned the lyrics. 

Notoriously, Kantner could not be credited as one of the song’s composers when Crosby, Stills & Nash’s version was released in May 1969. At the time, he was involved in tense legal disputes with Jefferson Airplane‘s manager, Matthew Katz.  

Laster, Crosby recalled: “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.”

Kantner would eventually see his name put on the song’s credits, and Jefferson Airplane recorded their version for their fifth album, 1969’s Volunteers. Upon listening to both, you heed that there is a slight variation in the lyrics and melody. One would argue that the CSN version is the ultimate one, but Jefferson Airplane’s remains an exciting take on the original, with the inclusion of Grace Slick and Co. 

Interestingly, the friendly battle between the versions would come to a head during hippiedom’s show of force, Woodstock Festival 1969. Both groups played the song as part of their sets at the iconic gathering. Then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the group’s performance is legendary because of the lineup and its inclusion on the concert film and album. Unfortunately for Jefferson Airplane, their performance remained unreleased until the 2009 Woodstock Experience boxset was released. 

Regardless of which version is better, the song would hold a significant meaning after its release. Written at the height of the bloody Vietnam War, the US was also locked in the Cold War, a geopolitical standoff with their antithesis, the Soviet Union. Duly, it describes the apocalyptic consequences of nuclear conflict, a terrible vision that was on the forefront of everyone’s minds at the time. The trio “imagined” themselves “as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilisation”.

For Kantner, this would become a recurring theme of his songwriting, which he would return to for the 1970’s concept album, Blows Against the Empire, the first record by Jefferson Starship. 

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The lyrics of ‘Wooden Ships’ detail the potential horrors confronting the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, where both the US and USSR have totally eviscerated each other. In the lyrics, a survivor stumbles across a survivor from the other side and asks them, “Can you tell me, please, who won?”.

A rhetorical question, the trio’s decision to leave it unanswered drives the point home. In the event of a nuclear war, there are no winners, only losers. Something of a musical precursor to Stephen King’s classic work, The Stand, in the song, the two survivors eat “purple berries”, iodine pills, which protect them from the highly radioactive iodine-131 that comes as part of nuclear fallout. 

Elsewhere in the lyrics, the survivors beg the “silver people on the shoreline” to “let us be”. These mysterious silver people were later described by Crosby as “guys in radiation suits”. The wooden ships are devoid of metal because of the risk of becoming radioactive from neutron activation and carry the survivors away from the terrors of the shores. 

Unfortunately, those who do not make it aboard are exposed to radiation and die. The lyrics paint a grim picture: “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”.

Given that the song spoke to people’s fears at the time, it became one of the most iconic efforts from the countercultural period. Neil Young would refer to the song in his 1986 track ‘Hippie Dream’ from Landing Water to criticise the hippie movement and argue that it only had itself to blame for its demise in the early 1970s. The refrain is “the wooden ships / were just a hippie dream”, and it is altered to “the wooden ships are a hippie dream/capsized in excess/if you know what I mean”.

Sometime after the song’s release, Jackson Browne asked David Crosby about the fate of some of those left behind after the ships set sail. To which Crosby responded, “Well, fuck ’em” in his typically ill-thought-out manner. Shocked by Crosby’s remark, Browne penned his classic 1973 song ‘For Everyman’ in response. Crosby would eventually apologise for his comment. 

Perhaps the densest song written in the countercultural period, it’s a shame that many of the song’s themes remain as pertinent today as they were back then.

Listen to ‘Wooden Ships’ below.