Ambiguity #1: “Wooden Ships”

Standing on a train platform on a wintry morning a few months ago, the song “Wooden Ships” popped into my head.

I’m not sure why: I hadn’t heard it in months or even years, and I wasn’t, to my recollection, thinking about anything logically connected to the song or its various performers. The mind just jumps around; the “songs” section of mine is forever surprising me with the things it recalls. (Right around the same time, in fact, another song that I hadn’t heard in years or even decades just showed up in my brain, leading me to become slightly obsessed with it for a short while. Thankfully, the internet is a wondrous repository of early-1980s music videos, so you can still hear and see the splendor that is The Polecats’ 1983 hit “Make a Circuit with Me.”)

I don’t even like “Wooden Ships” all that much, honestly. I mean, it’s fine, but it’s a tad pretentious, and I don’t think it has dated particularly well: the rather obvious, “jazzy” way in which it juxtaposes its complex lyrical and musical melodies sounds, to my ears, a little hokey. Still, the vocal harmonies are second to none; the song is certainly evocative of … something; I’ve been going through a bit of a Stephen Stills phase lately (those first few solo albums are really good); and, most importantly, “Wooden Ships” is ambiguous.

That same wintry morning on the train platform, when the song first reared its head in my head, I used my phone to look up the song’s lyrics, which I’d never known in full. Reading them as I “listened” to the memory of the song “playing” in my head, I could barely reconcile the words with the melody – more on this below, as I think it’s one of the sources of uncertainty in the song. More ambiguous by far, though, is the content of the song’s lyric.

“Wooden Ships” is somewhat unusual for being roughly equally well-known in two versions that were released at about the same time. It appears as the first song on Side Two of Crosby, Stills & Nash, that group’s eponymous first album, released in 1969; and as the second song on Side Two of Volunteers, the sixth album by Jefferson Airplane. Both of these albums are generally very well-regarded and quite influential, Crosby, Stills & Nash for solidifying the harmony-drenched “California” folk-rock sound (and for launching the massive, and fraught, CSN [and sometimes Y] juggernaut), and Volunteers for its explicit political content and its condensation of the controversies and creeping jadedness that embodied the beginning of the end of the hippie era.

The song’s dual existence is explained by the fact that it was written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner. Crosby and Stills were just about to launch CSN, and had collaborated for some time prior; Kantner was the central figure of the Jefferson Airplane. For contractual reasons, Kantner was denied authorial credit for the song, a wrong righted some decades later. Kantner did not play on Crosby, Stills & Nash, but Stills and Crosby did play on Volunteers: Stills played the Hammond organ on “Turn My Life Down,” and Crosby is cryptically credited with having played “sailboat” on “Wooden Ships” itself. That, like, blows my mind, man.

Having listened carefully to the song multiple times, and comparing it with many online reprintings of its words, I can confirm that the following is the full lyric of “Wooden Ships,” written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Paul Kantner:

Stills: If you smile at me, I will understand
‘Cause that is something everybody everywhere does
in the same language.
Crosby: 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?
Stills: Say, can I have some of your purple berries?
Crosby: Yes, I’ve been eating them for six or seven weeks now,
haven’t got sick once.
Stills: 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,
Guess I’ll set a course and go…

I copied the above lyrics from this site, which is useful for another reason: it allows its users to “review” the songs for which it lists lyrics. The reviews of “Wooden Ships” offer a perfect condensation of the ambiguity inherent in the song. As of 21 July 2011, there were 25 “reviews” of “Wooden Ships” on www.sing365.com; the interpretations of the song break down into the following categories:

  • “The song is about a post-nuclear apocalypse”: 8
  • “The song is about the Vietnam War and/or the generalized youth dissatisfaction of the 1960s”: 6
  • “The song is about the US Civil War”: 2
  • “The song is about conflict in general, not a single specific conflict”: 2
  • “The song is about the apocalypse OR nuclear war – both are possible”: 1
  • No interpretation offered: 6

Though there seems to be a general consensus that “Wooden Ships” is about some sort of conflict, armed or otherwise, and/or the fallout (literal or figurative) from that conflict, a fairly wide range of conflicts is represented by the reviewers on this site. We might classify them as Past Conflict (Civil War), Present Conflict (Vietnam War), and Future Conflict (nuclear war). How does the song encourage these disparate readings?

Two common ways to create ambiguity are to give insufficient information and to give nonspecific or confusing information. “Wooden Ships” uses both techniques.

For one thing, there is a lack of specific time or place markers in the song, even as there are certain markers that suggest certain general themes. For instance, the lines “I can see by your coat, my friend / You’re from the other side,” and  “Can you tell me please, who won?” refer generally to armed conflict, but “sides” and “coats” (as a metaphor for “uniforms”) are germane to the discussion of any armed conflict. Other textual markers, like the “purple berries” and the suggestion that the action of the song takes place near a body of water, are similarly nonspecific.

Into the “confusing” category we may slot the line about “silver people on the shoreline.” Wikipedia’s take on this part of the song is that these figures “are commonly held to be men wearing radiation suits.” For many reasons, I don’t buy this reading.

First, “commonly held” is a phrase that falls into the category of “weasel words”: phrases that create the impression of a specific meaning, when in fact only a vague claim has been made. I love this term, and find it very useful. Were I a Wikipedian, I’d go in and make the change.

Second, I was unaware that radiation suits were typically silver; a quick Google Image search turns up a predominance of yellow ones, in fact, only some of which are DEVO costumes. I don’t profess to know why these people on the shoreline are silver, but I suspect it has something to do with the requirements of the song’s meter, liberal LSD use by the song’s authors, and a general “poetic” usage of the word that is not unrelated to the way we might sarcastically refer to a teacher’s favorite student as a “golden boy,” or, for that matter, the way Stevie Wonder sings about his “Golden Lady”: someone special, privileged, beautiful, unusual in appearance.

The rest of the markers in the song are extremely nonspecific. The section about helplessly watching others die does not refer to anything other than guilt and grief; the references to “your sister,” “this foreign land,” and “far away” are all similarly imprecise, a fact that encourages multiple readings.

Though there is no “right” answer to the question of the subject of “Wooden Ships,” I actually subscribe to what seems to be a minority reading: to me, the song seems to relate more to the American Civil War than to any other subject (beyond that of some sort of generalized conflict). I base my reading on a few textual markers: “coat,” which for some reason evokes for me images of The Blue and The Gray, maybe because I lived for a year in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and the reference to the “south,” which I admit could just as easily refer to South Vietnam – or simply to a point on the compass.

More crucially than those ambiguous ideas, though, the key word for me is right there in the song’s title: “wooden.” This evokes for me a sense of the past, not of the present or the future. I read it this way despite the fact that much of the water-based guerrilla warfare during the Vietnam War most assuredly involved wooden and even bamboo boats and rafts; and despite the fact that the American Civil War is well-known for being the first armed conflict in which metal submarines and iron-clad warships (The Monitor and The Merrimack, natch) took part. In other words, wooden ships are not strictly a thing of the past, nor are non-/post-wooden ships strictly a thing of the present or the future – hey, if the song is about a post-nuclear scenario, wood as a boat-building material seems more likely than any sort of machined metal. Still, that’s how the song plays for me.

Why, though? Apparently, the associations in my mind between “wooden” & “past” and “coat” & “Civil War” are stronger than any of the other associations that the lyric suggests, or that exist elsewhere in my brain. The reasons for these associations are complex and difficult if not impossible to determine. I suspect that the “coat/Civil War” one does, yes, have to do with a year lived within a literal stone’s throw of the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, and also with the fact that I’ve been an avid crossword-solver for nearly three decades now, and “REB” is a bit of “crosswordese” that is often clued by something akin to “soldier in a gray coat.” There are probably other reasons for this linkage, but they’re not revealing themselves to me. Similarly, it’s far easier and more logical for me to link “wood” with “past” than it is to link “wood” with “the building material of choice in a post-apocalyptic world,” simply because there is evidence and history to support the former, but the latter is purely conjectural.

So, while I know that “Wooden Ships” was written at a time when Vietnam and nuclear war were pressing concerns, I am seemingly unable to get past the word “wooden,” which evokes an era well before the one in which the song was written. This surely has something to do with the fact that “wooden” receives the pride of place of being found in the song’s title, and the titles of artworks very often give cues and clues as to what the work is “about.”

As I mention above, I also believe that the complexity of the relationship between the music and the lyrics also contributes to a certain ambiguity in “Wooden Ships.” The first verse in particular exhibits a very loose metrical form: the number of syllables in each line varies quite a lot; many of even the stressed or accented syllables occur at moments that do not receive any particular musical emphasis or counterpoint; and the time signature of the song shifts often. These techniques produce a “complex” piece that eschews the regularity of form that is often used to limit the range of meanings in a work.

In a song, the chorus, by definition, is a lyrical portion that is repeated; through that repetition, the chorus itself earns a privileged place in the ear of the listener. “Wooden Ships” does not have a chorus, which alone separates it from most pop songs, and denies us a straightforward “hook” with which we might otherwise familiarize ourselves with the song.

A steady beat or metrical pattern in a song allows us to grasp the straightforward ways in which music and lyrics reinforce one another, with, for instance, key words receiving musical emphases and caesuras in the music complementing pauses in the lyrical delivery. (Compare the music/lyric relationship in “Wooden Ships” to that in, for instance, “Make a Circuit with Me,” linked/mentioned above.) Listen to how Stephen Stills stretches out the “a” in the word “same” in the song’s third line, for instance. As well, the words “and easy” are sung, in the first and fourth lines of the second verse, after those lines’ accompanying music has reached a kind of natural conclusion in its rhythm and melody. The “and easy”s sort of hang there, unattached to any other line, giving the song a kind of freeform sound. In “Wooden Ships,” the rhythmic and harmonic lines are quite fluid, suggesting a work that aligns itself more with the complexity of jazz and “high art,” forms which are themselves associated with “higher” or “purer” meanings than the kind usually found in popular music. Such associations, especially combined with the nonspecificity of the lyric, enhance and even multiply the song’s ambiguity.

I still don’t love the song, but I like it a little better now for having analyzed it a bit.

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Posted on July 25, 2011, in Ambiguities and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I had never heard either version of the song until your post. Grace Slick is a guilty pleasure for me, so I am more inclined toward the J.A. version, but you are correct — it is generally a very odd song.

    (I mean — Purple Berries? Huh?)

    Of course, now that I have heard the song exactly twice, I feel compelled to offer my own expert interpretation.

    The song is an extended hippie dippie riff on Emersonian themes. Since Thoreau had already booked the cabin at Walden, the songwriters opted instead for the psychedelic cruise package.

    From a distant nautical vantage, the denizens of a war-torn society are reduced to anonymous grey smudges (or silver, if you will) on the horizon.

    Instead of: “From here the people look like ants!”
    It’s: “From here our dystopian erstwhile homeland looks like a Ziggy Stardust concert!”

    In their isolated state, (and, of course you KNOW that they are isolated, what with the ignorance of current events and berry subsistence) our heroes tune in to what REALLY MATTERS, man. It’s not about an arbitrary war… it’s about….you know… like, helping each other. And eating berries. Woah. I think this song is actually about Oregon. Dude.

  2. Welcome to the ‘sphere. I hope you’ve heard Christine Harwood’s version of this song. So awkward, yet so right:

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