Wooden Ships: David Crosby and the decline of the hippie dream

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There is nothing better than a frontier to be explored, a community to be established or the pursuit of a dream to define America. This is the genetic code inscribed in the principles of its Constitutional laws as well as an everlasting source of inspiration for society and arts.

Thus, when the hippie movement reached its height in the latter half of the Sixties, the spirit of the pioneers and the ideals of the founding fathers passed onto the generation born during or just after the war. Young people were looking for a better world and new lifestyles. Living in communes became a way of rediscovering the past from different perspectives. Moreover, they struggled for new kinds of freedom and equality, securing rights we still enjoy.

In the media imagery, California was the set for this revolution; the soundtrack running under its most relevant moments was performed in San Francisco where, since the middle of the decade, a whole generation – like a caravan full of dreams – gathered, ready to cross the borders of a cultural geography until then unknown.

Among those involved in the movement, nobody but David Crosby could be more representative and iconic. He is undoubtedly a key figure of the hippie culture, being intensely committed to it, as man and artist. When you hear his name, you immediately recall his dreamlike and friendly big face and his thick cow-boy moustaches. He seems the very image of the frontier spirit so deeply rooted in American culture.

One of the best voices of his generation, “Croz” – the lion of California – can be seen as a true pioneer and innovator, especially if we take into account the attitude to “nomadism”, both musical and geographical, expressed in his long career. Born in L.A. and raised in an artistic environment, he soon moved to East and settled in Greenwich Village – the scene where Folk Revival originated – looking for inspiration and success. Just before, he had formed an acoustic duo in Chicago with Terry Callier, a black musician, but it seemed that US music was not yet ready for a mixed pair.

In this period, he also met Roger McGuinn. Once back in California, they joined up with Gene Clark to form The Byrds. Crosby introduced his unique style into folk rock, opening the way to psychedelia.  During the years spent in the band (1964-1967), he was one of the first to experience the consciousness-altering effects of LSD, the so-called “trip”. Crosby was so enthusiastic about drugs to involve the Beatles while touring in America on summer 1965.

Then, in 1967, Summer of Love burst into bloom. While the euphoria of the hippie dream was reaching its climax, the Monterey Festival became unintentionally a “sliding door” for many musicians. Thus, Crosby had the chance to play onstage with Stephen Stills and the Buffalo Springfield in their new line-up, replacing Neil Young who had just departed from the band. Shortly after, due to artistic reasons, Crosby would himself leave his group. Whereas his approach to music was decidedly progressive, McGuinn and friends would eventually return to more traditional paths.

After the split with the Byrds, Crosby collaborates with his friends Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane and Stephen Stills, now alone after Buffalo Springfield’s break up. The result is Wooden Ships, one of those few songs which really capture the spirit of the time.

Being “unemployed”, at the end of 1967 Crosby buys a sail boat to improve the navigational and sailor skills he had acquired in his youth. He finds a yacht named Mayan, a jewel built in Belize with costly mohogany woods coming from Honduras, and falls in love with it.

Mooring at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the ship soon becomes the meeting point with the other two musicians, invited by Crosby to spend a leisure week-end in the first months of 1968. Protected and inspired by the comfortable wooden shell moving silently over the sea surface, the three friends feel the ideal creative atmosphere for a long guitar jam session. Thus, when the host plays a series of old chords to brush up his memory, Paul Kantner promptly sings some words that come into his mind. In doing so, he delineates the lyrics and the refrain “wooden ships on the water, very free and easy”, while Stills refines the melody and adds the well-known final line. Feeling like pioneers sitting around a campfire in a sort of ancestral ritual – as Crosby would say later – they experience a true and intense collaboration.

The result is a very evocative song, full of biblical reminiscences. Paul Kantner soon releases his own version for Jefferson Airplane’s pivotal album Volunteers (1968), while David Crosby and Steve Stills along with Graham Nash will record it for their debut album (1969).

Both bands will perform Wooden Ships at Woodstock, eventually considering it a common heritage. Much more than a mere professional collaboration, the song is the musical expression of a true friendship. It also mirrors the community spirit hanging on San Francisco’s counterculture scene.

(Wooden Ship demo performed at Jefferson Airplane house at Haight Ashbury, with David Crosby – 1968)

Inspired to pacifism but also conveying an apocalyptic vision, Wooden Ships tells of a future time when wars have already caused a nuclear catastrophe, as inferred by men wearing silver radiation suits “Silver people on the shoreline let us be…”. Hence the elect, that is the hippy community, decide to leave their country – seen as a foreign land which rejects them – organizing an exodus by means of wooden ships similar to arks aimed at founding a new and better civilization, a place where people can enjoy life again “…lead her away from this foreign land. Far away, where we might laugh again. We are leaving, you don’t need us.”

Crosby, Stills & Nash’s version is the most well-known, being musically more elaborated and absorbing: ups and downs of emotions and moods, an amazing combination of opposites which alternate and complete each other – actually, the original title was “Positively Negative”. This mix of styles refines the psychedelic canon established by David Crosby: rock-blues, jazz, folk, oriental, space-rock. All this is floating on a dreamy atmosphere, merging and separating like a fluid through an alembic, driven by the rise and fall of the emotional intensity.

Leaning on a solid and long-lasting bassline and powerful electric sounds, the tune unties the melancholic and indolent story sung by Stills and Crosby, dotting it with liquid touches of keyboards and smooth jazz-like guitar playing. Vocal parts show a striking complementarity, resulting from the combination of Still’s distinctive Texan accent with Crosby’s sensual and crystal clear voice, as if experiencing a mystic trance. The refrain is a liturgical hymn, a perfect anthem for large crowds, being captivating and choral. Finally, the end, with Crosby’s voice fading as in a dream, gives us further suggestions: we can almost see that wooden ship disappearing from the horizon to be lost in the sea.

Much more than a simple manifesto of pacifism, Wooden Ships is most of all a hymn to hope and an unconscious tribute to Puritan origins and the myth of the frontier. Imbued with a sacral vision, the song displays a passionate faith, at times epic and powerful but also melancholic and visionary, expressing at once dystopian and utopian perspectives.

Critical about the establishment and unable to adjust to ordinary life, many hippies would escape from society to live apart, experiencing an isolation somewhat similar to that of the ancient religious brotherhoods. Hence utopia slowly moved from the realm of social and political issues to arts. Shortly thereafter, community spirit would be replaced by self-reflection and care. The shift from us to me would turn Californian subculture into mainstream.

By then, the hippie phenomenon was absorbed by media and the high tide of the Summer of Love would come to an end, having its symbolic funeral: Vietnam war escalation and the police firing on protesters would show America’s violent side; the tragic events of the free concert held at Altamont and the Manson family murders would stain with blood the flowers; heroin would definitely break the idyll.

Smoothly declining, the dream became more utopian: in 1970, Paul Kantner, under the name of Jefferson Starship and with the contribution of his friends from the Bay Area, released Blows against the Empire – an ideal sequel of the “wooden ships” – imagining to abandon the earth on a spaceship to establish a community on another planet, in the name of peace and love.

But, once again, it was David Crosby, already suffering from LSD addiction, the one who really marked the end of the hippie dream in If I could only remember my name (1971), his first solo album. With a sunset on the cover, this pivotal work contains in its very title an admission of defeat: after living a fast life, it is impossible to go back the way you were.

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