In David Crosby's liner notes for the 1991 box set Crosby, Stills & Nash, he says this cryptic, apocalyptic, anti-war song was "written in the main cabin of my boat, the Mayan. I had the music already [and Jefferson Airplane's] Paul Kanter wrote two verses, Stephen [Stills] wrote one and I added the bits at both ends."
He goes on to say that the songwriters "imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization."
Crosby called the song "science fiction," but with the Vietnam War escalating and nuclear weapons bunkered around the world, it didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility.
This is the only song on the Crosby, Stills & Nash album - the group's first - with more than one writer on the credits. The group came together in 1968 after the three members - David Crosby (The Byrds), Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) left very successful bands. Each came with their own songs, which were evenly distributed throughout the album. Crosby and Stills made music together before Nash joined, which is how "Wooden Ships" came together.
If you smile at me, I will understand
'Cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language
These opening lines Crosby cribbed from a Baptist church in Florida that had this message on their sign.
Crosby and Stills share lead vocals on this track. Stills played most of the instruments (guitar, bass, organ) and did the guitar solo, which Nash thinks is some of his best work. Crosby added rhythm guitar and session man Dallas Taylor handled drums.
Many CSN songs can be played acoustic, the the electric guitar solo in this one meant they had to plug in to perform it.
According to Crosby, the "silver people on the shoreline" are guys in radiation suits.
The band played this at Woodstock a few months after the album was released with their new addition: Neil Young. The Woodstock gig was just the second time they played together.