As strange as it might sound, there was a period of time in popular music where you could hear the same song, recorded by different artists, released only months, weeks, or even days apart from each other. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were especially prone to this phenomenon. With three active songwriters (four whenever Neil Young showed up) mingling freely within the collaborative Lauryl Canyon music scene, it wasn’t uncommon for songs to flow with radical efficiency.
Most famously, this came in the form of CSNY releasing ‘Woodstock’ just a month before Joni Mitchell put out her own version of the song. Mitchell had written the song the year prior, but because of her relationship with Graham Nash, CSNY was somehow able to beat Mitchell to the punch on her own song. But she should have known: just a year prior, CSN has pulled the same trick on Jefferson Airplane.
That’s because the song ‘Wooden Ships’ was a collaboration between David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. Written at the culmination of Crosby’s heartbroken boat period, ‘Wooden Ships’ was a searing and spacey psychedelic anthem featuring Crosby’s signature atypical chord changes and Stills’ soaring lead guitar. Stills and Kantner collaborated on the lyrics, which have been connected to escapism regarding the Vietnam War.
Both CSN and Jefferson Airplane were eager to record the track, but CSN’s version from their self-titled debut came out roughly a month before the Airplane’s version featured on Volunteers. That’s at least partially thanks to the conflict between the Airplane and their manager, Matthew Katz. Kantner was levelling lawsuits against Katz, and Katz in turn was threatening to halt any music with Kantner’s name on it, including ‘Wooden Ships’. On the first pressing of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Kantner is uncredited for his songwriting contributions.
“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,” Crosby recalled. “‘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.”
By the time the conflict was resolved, Jefferson Airplane rush-released Volunteers, which included ‘Wooden Ships’. Fans could choose between which version they wanted to hear, but the CSN version went on to be the more commonly cited version in pop culture. The Airplane’s version is longer and slightly different with its central melody, but both takes are moody and apocalyptic in equal measure, making for fascinating side-by-side listening experiences.
Check out both versions of ‘Wooden Ships’ down below.