For this week’s Song Lyric Sunday challenge, Jim Adams has given us the option to choose whatever we like. This was harder than I expected it to be because there are so damn many songs that I love. But Jim said he might make it an annual thing, so if I’m still around next October, I’ll get to choose again. Anyway, my choice this year is the song from Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Wooden Ships.”
“Wooden Ships” was written and composed by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner. Kantner was a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, which also recorded the song. It was written and composed in 1968 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a boat named the Mayan, owned by Crosby, who composed the music, while Kantner and Stills wrote most of the lyrics. It was released in February 1969 on CSN’s debut album, Crosby, Stills & Nash. It was also released by Jefferson Airplane in November 1969 on their fifth album, Volunteers. The two versions differ slightly in lyrics and melody. I’m including both versions below, but I’m partial to CSN’s version.
“Wooden Ships” was written as an anti-war song at the height of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. was also locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. 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.”
The lyrics of “Wooden Ships” detail the potential horrors confronting the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, where both sides have totally eviscerated each other. In the lyrics, a survivor stumbles across a survivor from the other side and asks, “Can you tell me, please, who won?”
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, and they 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.”
Here are the lyrics to “Wooden Ships.”
If you smile at me, I will understand
'Cause that is something
Everybody everywhere does in the same language
I can see by your coat, my friend
You're from the other side
There's just one thing I got to know
Can you tell me please, who won?
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
Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy
Easy, you know the way it's supposed to be
Silver people on the shoreline, let us be
Talkin' 'bout very free and easy
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
Go, take your sister then, by the hand
Lead her away from this foreign land
Far away, where we might laugh again
We are leaving, you don't need us
And it's a fair wind blowin' warm
Out of the south over my shoulder
I guess I'll set a course and go