Change was in the air in early 1968 for David Crosby. He had quit (or been kicked out of) the Bryds in late 1967 at least in part due to the bands refusal to include his song “Triad” on the Notorious Byrd Brothers album (we will talk more about Triad in a later post). His relationship with his Byrd band mates had been deteriorating for some time but it hadn’t helped matters when David decided to play with Buffalo Springfield at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.
Stephen Stills, of Buffalo Springfield fame, was also dealing with change in 1968. Buffalo Springfield was in the process of falling apart. Neil Young had quit the band (for the first time) prior to Monterey which is why David was asked to fill in for the festival set. This unplanned initial collaboration between Stephen and David was the start of a musical friendship that would shape the remainder of both men’s musical careers.
Jefferson Airplane, a stalwart in the burgeoning San Francisco psychedelic music scene, was another major group headlining the Monterey Pop Festival. The San Francisco scene seemed to better suit David’s lifestyle and musical taste and he was starting to gravitate away from LA and towards Northern California. He was already friends with Paul Kanter and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. While his Byrd band mates had refused to release Triad, Jefferson Airplane embraced it, releasing a version on their Crown of Creation album.
The Birth Of Wooden Ships (On The Mayan)
Freed of the Byrds and other entanglements, David purchased a yacht, the Mayan, in Florida.
He had learned to sail at the age of 11 and was happiest while on the water. He invited friends Stephen Still and Paul Kanter to join him for some quality time on the Mayan and, of course, some music.
David had been working on a set of changes on the guitar that he really loved but didn’t have any lyrics to go with the music. Listen to the demo using the link below:
As he played those changes for Stephen and Paul on the Mayan the magic happened quickly. Paul came up with the opening line “Wooden ships on the water very free and easy” while Stephen helped with the musical arrangement and contributed the lyric “Horror grips us as we watch you die”. By the time they were done the basic song had taken shape.
Stephen Still Wooden Ships Demo
A month later Stephen was in a New York studio working on Judy Collin’s album. At the end of one session, he stayed in the studio and recorded demos of a few songs, among them was Wooden Ships as written on the Mayan. Listen to the Wooden Ships demo using the link below:
This recording represents the first recorded version of the song with lyrics. The demo recording was finally released in 2007 as part of Stephen’s Just Roll Tape album. This recording was the genesis of the song that eventually found its way onto the first album of the yet to be formed Crosby, Stills, and Nash (CSN) which was released in early 1969. Paul Kanter was not credited as a writer on Wooden Ships on that first CSN album due to contractual issues that he and Jefferson Airplane were having.
Jefferson Airplane Wooden Ships In Haight Asbury
Although not initially credited as a writer on Wooden Ships, Paul Kanter continued to work on the song including the addition of a significant number of new lyrics not included on the song as completed on the Mayan. You can get a sense of these additions on an incredible historical video relic from 1968 that Marty Balin posted on You Tube. This video shows key members of Jefferson Airplane, along with David Crosby, playing Kanter’s updated version of Wooden Ships in 1968 in the basement of the Jefferson Airplane house in Haight Asbury. Watch the video at the following link:
The finalized version of this Jefferson Airplane version of Wooden Ships was completed and released on their classic album Volunteers in late 1969.
Wooden Ships surprisingly was the only song written by Crosby, Stills, and Kanter. But lets give them credit, if you are only going to write one song make it a great one. Put the banner up on the Aircraft Carrier….Mission Accomplished.
So…now that you know the story behind Wooden Ships and have heard versions of the song from its first inception by David Crosby through early versions by Stephen Still and Jefferson Airplane I encourage you to buy the CSN and Jefferson Airplane released versions of the song. Both versions are great in their own way. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. Let me know what you think.
Curious if anyone knows what tuning Crosby is using on Wooden Ships. I suppose I could try to figure it out but don’t have a guitar handy now.