Wooden Ships

Album: Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)


  • 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.

Comments: 21

  • Hippie @ Heart from Northern VirginiaSilver people on the shore refer to soldiers in radiation suits in alert for a possible land invasion. Wood do not keep radiation to the level of Steal. Purple berries is in reference to iodine pills to help with radiation poisoning. " Yes, I've been eating them for six or seven weeks now,
    Haven't got sick once." "Probably keep us both alive"
  • Roger from UsSilver people on the shoreline let us be. People who are radioactive. The song is about what remains after a nuclear holocaust. Can I have some of your purple berries, yes I've been eating them for six to seven weeks now probably keep both of us alive. Finding food that isn't contaminated.
    Wooden ships on the water very free. There are no more motors so it is back to sails and wind so you can travel to safer places.
    I have always known what the song is about even when they first released the album. I do like it when Neil plays with them, but Crosby, Stills, and Nash are great songwriters.
  • Colin from West Yorkshire, UkI have a very early copy of the Crosby Stills and Nash Album. In the "Purple Berries" conversation, the sound level for one of the speakers is very low. It seems to have been made louder in later versions. Has anyone else got the same thing on their copy?
  • Dave from MinnesotaJackson Browne gave his answer to this song with For Everyman, basically saying that if they wanted to sail off to another world, that was their choice, but he felt compelled to stay here and try to improve this one.
  • The Blue Bus Driver from MauiAloha from Maui. 3am wake up with this thought passed on to me while sleeping. Take it as you will: "I can tell by your coat you're from the other side. There's just one thing I got to know, can you tell me please who won?" POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE MEANING (besides wars): Coat equals suit. Won means a race and race means the rat race. Your mileage may vary, just passing it along and if you like this song, check out The Blue Bus on Mixcloud. Mahalo!
  • Shawn from Windsor, Ontario CanadaIt sounds to me like silver beings on the shores are inter dimensional. I know, a bit much for some people to grasp. Having come to try and help answer our anguished cries, they're leaving... cause the powerful god playing humans in command have disregarded there message. Wooden ships possibly metaphor's for ark's. The difference in coats and being from the other side might refer to the galaxy. That fact that they say all human feelings die, might suggest again being from another galaxy or dimension. Great tune and I hope if such loving nurturing beings exist they intervene to end the tyranny. One love people. Peace!!
  • Mark from Lunenburg, MaThis song plays in the movie "1969" as the main character and his girlfriend are passing an Army convoy on their way to Canada so he can avoid the draft. (He ultimately doesn't go through with it). It's the quintessential 60's scene. It was the perfect choice for the image.
  • Barry from New York, NcI like how the song is presented in the movie WOODSTOCK. It fits in perfectly during the night time work scenes. Also I like how the organ track keeps on going long after the rest of the song fades away.
  • Kipp from Bowen Island, BcI always looked at the first verse as a meeting between the two victims in the song, "If you smile at me, I will understand" meaning that, regardless of being on enemy teams, that they must work together if they actually want to live and be free, taking care of eachother and feeding on "purple berries".
  • Michael from Pittsburgh, PaObviously an anti-nuke/anti-war song. The narrative is about two people meeting after a nuclear holocaust. One says that he can tell by the coat the other is wearing that he was from the other side of the war - maybe it is a military uniform coat - and then asks who won, which seems to imply sarcastically that nobody did. I can imagine someone sailing around after the fiery end of the world and coming across someone from the opposing side, and they have this survivor's conversation.

    We can tell it's about a post-nuclear environment because of the discussion about the berries, which one of the characters has been eating for weeks and hasn't got sick once.

    The Jefferson Airplane version is also great, by the way.
  • Paul from Claremont, Cahow do they get that guitar sound (the lead guitar) in this song?

    and, btw, i wish people only commented about the song. fred offered his personal view in order to underscore how great the song is.
  • Wayne from Salem, VaThis is my favorite Crosby,Stills and Nash song. The opening chords are hypnotic. And the words and the three part harmony. A classic all the way around. I prefer the live Woodstock version over the studio. Jefferson Airplane do a great job of it on their "Volunteers' album. Buy Stephen Stills' cd "Just Roll Tape" from 2007. It is just him and his acoustic guitar in the studio in 1968. Three months prior to the first CSN album. He does a nice job on "Wooden Ships". very free and easy'
  • Ed from Raleigh, NcTo be clear, on the Woodstock recording, Crosby says it's a science fiction song, so holocaust does not refer to the Holocaust, but some imaginary future one. He said, "the holocaust, whatever it may be."
  • Ralph from Irvine, CaCongratulations, Rich from Bellevue, you have exceeded the ignorance you complain of in Mike. This also shows your Arrogance. You complain about Mike complaining about Rich. You think that your opinions are worth publishing and Mikes' are not. In a free speech environment more speech provides the tools for greater understanding. Lack of understanding or agreement simply calls for mor speech. Calling people names does not; it only demonstrates frustration at the inability to communicate effectively. Let me explain what Mike was trying to say: war involves killing people. People usually promote war over peace for selfish economic objectives. Otherwise, they are in fact stupid as Mike says, because they have been duped by their information sources anti-war objectives are despicable. What this really means is that pro-war people like Rich (and Fred) are lazy or so lacking in skills and intelligence that it is easier to steal power and resources through war than it is to create or make it yourself. I will go beyond Mikes saying these are "non-nice people". I call them evil, and they do not belong on the human team. The lyrics of this song demonstrate the artists who wrote it intended to communicate that war is bad for humans. Mike and Fred should listen to or read the lyrics.
  • Rich from Bellevue, WaCongratulations, Mike, that is the single worst comment I've seen on this site. You are a complete ignoramus. If you can't tolerate a political position different than your own without devolving into profanity-laced personal attacks and putting words in the other person's mouth (I don't know Fred, but I feel confident he has never killed anyone in the name of Capitalism), then you are a non-nice person.
  • Mike from Atlanta, GaFred, "As much as I despise the so-called anti war movement, both then and now", that is the stupidest thing that has ever been written about this song! I don't give a s**t what you think about the song!!! If you can kill people in the name of Capitalism, you are a non-nice person! Mike
  • Tyler from San Clemente, CaIf you listen to the beginning to this song on the Woodstock recording David Crosby says that the song has to do with the holocaust and they are escaping in the "Wooden Ships".
  • Rob from Wilkes-barre, PaNo one even comes close to CSN[Y]'s harmony.
  • Fred from Laurel, MdMuch as I despise the so-called anti-war movement, both then and now, THIS IS AN AMAZING SONG!! The whole album is tops, in fact -- one of my all-time favorites.
  • Paul from Phoenix, AzYou need another entry for Jefferson Airplane's version of the song. It was released the same year (1969) on their "Volunteers" album.
  • Philip from Akron, OhNeil Young referenced this song in "Hippie Dream" on his 1986 album _Landing_on_Water_, e.g.,
    "And the wooden ships
    Are a hippie dream
    Capsized in excess
    If you know what I mean"
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