“Can you tell me, please, who won?”
“Wooden Ships” is a song written and composed by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills, of which versions were eventually recorded both by Crosby, Stills & Nash and by Jefferson Airplane; Kantner was a founding member of the latter team. 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…..
The words of the song depict the horrors confronting the survivors of a nuclear holocaust in which the two sides have annihilated each other. A man from one side stumbles upon a man (or woman, as in Jefferson Airplane’s version) from the other side and asks him/her, “Can you tell me, please, who won?” Since the question has no real meaning in the circumstances or even at all, it is left unanswered. To stay alive, they share “purple berries”, as a result of which they “haven’t got sick once” (iodine pills, which protect against radioactive iodine-131 in nuclear fallout). The lyrics beg “silver people on the shoreline,” described by David Crosby as “guys in radiation suits,” to “let us be.” As the wooden ships, devoid of metal that would become radioactive from neutron activation, are carrying the survivors away from the shores, radiation poisoning kills those who have not made it aboard. That grim tableau is described thus:
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
It is also described in an [unsung] prelude, included in the lyric sheet:
Black sails knifing through the pitchblende night
Away from the radioactive landmass madness
From the silver-suited people searching out
Uncontaminated food and shelter on the shores
No glowing metal on our ship of wood
Only free happy crazy people naked in the universe.
And it’s a fair wind blowin’ warm
Out of the south over my shoulder
Guess I’ll set a course and go….