This apocalyptic fable highlights two of the late ‘60s best rock albums -- Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN) self-titled debut as well as the Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers -- both of which were issued within months of each other in the spring of ’69. As with most of the tracks on the CSN platter, the huge sound of the band was primarily the work of Stephen Stills -- with augmentation where needed. For “Wooden Ships” the instrumental duties are divvied up between Stills (lead guitar/organ/bass), David Crosby (rhythm guitar) and Dallas Taylor (drums). Stills unleashes some of the same fret board fervour that had likewise graced his collaborative efforts on the Super Session (1968) LP. His lead guitar solos are equally as lyrical as well as emphatic and are perfectly complimented by the organ and bass foundation -- which occasionally percolates above the surface to further strengthen the cohesive sound of a real-time live band. There is an unusual twist to the vocal delivery -- which alternates from a dialogue between Crosby and Stills to the powerful three-part harmony of the trio with Graham Nash.
According to Crosby’s liner notes in the four-disc career retrospective Crosby, Stills & Nash [Box Set] (1991), the song was “written in the main cabin of my boat, the Mayan. I had the music already [and] Paul Kanter wrote two verses, Stephen wrote one and I added the bits at both ends.” He also explains the cryptic lyrics such as “silver people on the shoreline” -- which are those left behind in their nuclear radiation suits. Crosby concludes that the authors “imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.”
There are several notable cover and live readings of “Wooden Ships”. Primary from the various CSN constituents is the profound Woodstock Music And Arts Fair version -- which is included on the original motion picture soundtrack as well as the single disc Best of Woodstock (1994) -- but is conspicuously absent from the four-CD Woodstock: Three Days of Peace & Music [25th Anniversary] box set. Crosby and Nash do an equally chilling acoustic rendering on the Another Stoney Evening (1998) live vault release from a 1971 concert, as well as on the Sing Out For Seva (1999) benefit disc. Stephen Stills also incorporated it into his Live (1979) solo release. Likewise, Crosby issued “Wooden Ships” on both It’s All Coming Back To Me Now (1995) and his King Biscuit Flower Hour (1996) appearance from a 1989 show.
Although no legitimate concert recordings from the late ‘60s version of the Jefferson Airplaneexists, Deep Space/Virgin Sky (1995) does have a live performance with Gracie Slick in tow from a reunion show.