Wooden Ships (1969)
Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Wooden Ships” is built around the scenario that nuclear war has destroyed Earth. The song is formed in such a way that the listener understands the “action” is occurring a number of weeks or months after the actual catastrophe.
You can almost hear the disquieting winds of a nuclear winter, see the smoldering remains of civilization, feel the groping forward of the survivors. End-of-the-world tales pervaded the paranoid world of the Cold War.
They ranged from nuclear-aftermath films like On The Beach to the 1964 military thriller Fail-Safe about an “accidental” attack on Moscow by American bombers. (Its ad slogan was, Fail-Safe will have you sitting on the brink of eternity.)
That is the topical premise, but the song is metaphorical all the way, changing radically via the consciousness of the listening public as it was squeezed through the sieve of popular culture. The scene shifted from post-apocalypse to the moments presaging what many thought was an imminent social meltdown.
If there is such a thing, “Wooden Ships” is an easy-to-listen song that has an incredible political edge to it – it lulls you with its fictions and golden-era CS&N harmonies, then sucker punches you with real-time meaning and feeling – filling you helplessly hoping.
Over the course of many decades, we have come to expect perfect vocals from Crosby Stills & Nash, their joint voice operating somewhere beyond the solar system, the oral equivalent of glowing space dust. That sublime beauty has the unfortunate effect of making their songs often seem lightweight, a little too decorative.
“Wooden Ships” sweeps those appraisals away in its wake and prepares for the merger with Neil Young on their second album. Neil brought an edgier sensibility that was playing peek-a-boo before he arrived but was buried deep in beauty. In that, “Wooden Ships” is the enabler of “Almost Cut My Hair,” “Country Girl” and “Woodstock” on Déjà Vu.
“Wooden Ships” from CS&N’s first studio album
“Wooden Ships” sailed its way onto the world stage in the glorious and desperate years of 1968-’69. There appeared to be a breakdown in the social contract convulsing the globe – a societal nuclear war. Intentionally or not, the song’s lyrics became a reflection of the divisions.
I can see from your coat, my friend
You’re from the other side
Can you tell me who won?
1968, top to bottom:
Paris, Chicago, and student
massacre in Mexico City
Massive student demonstrations, rioting in ghettoes, and labor unrest stretched from Paris, Rome and Istanbul to Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, from Mexico City to South America to Tokyo. Just to spice things up, the Soviet Union invaded Czecho-slovakia. Twenty years later the memory of the “Prague Spring” would rally Eastern Bloc countries to finally throw off Soviet dominion.
The immediate cause of these breakdowns, which were propelled by youths in reaction to political and social oppressions, was U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the American government’s reaction to protests. Assassinations of beloved leaders like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy added fuel to the fire. In the larger picture, though, feelings born of alienation, dislocation, the fear of an out-of-control technological corporate beast and even familial conflict piled up like ice floes in a raging river. Something had to give.
But 1969 signaled something of a new beginning for the “Movement,” as it was loosely called.
As more established people joined protests against the war, the police and National Guards calmed down (at least until the spring of 1970). It was one thing to beat the holy crap out of kids and people of color; it was another to take the truncheons to moms, grandmas, authors, actors and political players.
Later in 1969, as everyone knows, the U.S. experienced the mega-flower power event of all time, Woodstock. The year overflowed with be-ins, love-ins, teach-ins, marches and moratoriums. The paranoia of the Cold War merged with the fear and hatred of a resurgent progressive movement – the New Left, black power, women’s liberation efforts, relaxed sexual mores, long hair, strange dress and inexplicable attacks of the munchies.
It was under the fog of such events that “Wooden Ships” was composed on David Crosby’s boat moored off of Ft. Lauderdale in early-1968. Crosby provided the music, the opening and closing few lines, and atmospherics. Steve Stills and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane wrote the remaining lyrics. Free of the standard nuclear-winter interpretation, the poetry comes alive to the many-colored coat of the late-’60s.
In a clear allusion to LSD, the song spins a scene:
Say can I have some of your purple berries?
Yes, I’ve been eating them
For six or seven weeks now haven’t got sick once
Probably keep us both alive
The chorus points out the conflict between the increasing uptightness in “straight” society – the silver people on the shoreline – versus the hip, those trying to create a new society – those aboard the wooden ships.
The utopian sense of separateness, of “the chosen,” of having a special vision pervades the song. The free-flowing acoustic side of “Wooden Ships” – guitars and vocals, shared by Crosby, Stills and Nash – manages that superlatively. The aura of drifting and sailing away is unmistakable. That they are drifting to a past perceived as better than the present makes for a touching poignancy.
The tip of the knife point is provided by Steve Stills’ harsh, jangling lead guitar that interrupts the dreamier aspects of the tune. It is strongly reminiscent of his work with Buffalo Springfield a few years earlier and tells of runs he would make with CSN&Y very shortly in the future.
While Crosby Stills & Nash deserve the top slot rating for their version, a note has to be made of the Jefferson Airplane’s version of “Wooden Ships,” which is almost as good, but slightly less well known, than the one by CS&N. For the Airplane’s rendition, Paul Kantner kicked in additional lyrics. Grace Slick’s harmonies that swoop over the male voices in the Airplane recording are breathtaking, communicating defiance where CS&N’s harmonies convey mournfulness.
Both groups sang their versions at Woodstock. It was at the festival that the song took on its richer dimension as an anthem of the counterculture.
Jefferson Airplane performed “Wooden Ships” at roughly 8:45 AM on Sunday morning. The full version is in the Video Library above. And we do mean full. It’s over 21 minutes long, a jam band feast. Meanwhile:
Jefferson Airplane’s studio version of “Wooden Ships”
CS&N (with Y) performed their version of the song close to 4 o’clock on Monday morning. (Also in the Video Library.) In the few months that had passed since the original release, you can feel the growing frustration, echoed in the anger of the probing guitars.
And the first heaven shall depart and pass away
And a new heaven shall appear
– Book of Enoch, Chapter 93, verse 16
“Wooden Ships” stands as a document of its time, its beautiful melody and melancholy words a fitting coda to the immediate post-World War II period. Where Dylan had warned us things were changing, “Wooden Ships” acknowledged they had already changed and we had crossed the threshold into a world that in many ways we still inhabit.
Best of all, we’re reminded of people and places from that tumultuous time that were trying desperately to make small changes even bigger. The battle rages on.
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- In a rare moment of misguided excess, Neil Young wrote in his 1986 song, “Hippie Dream”:There was a time
When the river was wide
And the water
Came running down
To the rising tide
But the wooden ships
Were just a hippie dream
Just a hippie dream
- The expression “hippie dream” pops up again as the subtitle of his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream.