Puff, the Magic Dragon
|"Puff, the Magic Dragon"|
|Single by Peter, Paul and Mary|
|from the album Moving|
|Writer(s)||Leonard Lipton, Peter Yarrow|
The lyrics for "Puff, the Magic Dragon" were based on a 1959 poem by Leonard Lipton, a 19-year-old Cornell University student. Lipton was inspired by an Ogden Nash poem titled "Custard the Dragon", about a "realio, trulio little pet dragon."
The lyrics tell a story of the ageless dragon Puff and his playmate Jackie Paper, a little boy who grows up and loses interest in the imaginary adventures of childhood and leaves Puff alone and depressed. (Because of the line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys", the lyrics may imply to some that Jackie Paper dies.) The story of the song takes place "by the sea" in the fictional land of Honalee (the spelling used by author Lenny Lipton, though non-authoritative variations abound.)
Lipton was friends with Peter Yarrow's housemate when they were all students at Cornell. He used Yarrow's typewriter to get the poem out of his head. He then forgot about it until years later, when a friend called and told him Yarrow was looking for him, to give him credit for the lyrics. On making contact Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and he still gets royalties from the song.
In an effort to be gender-neutral, Yarrow now sings the line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" as "A dragon lives forever, but not so girls and boys." The original poem also had a verse that did not make it into the song. In it, Puff found another child and played with him after returning. Neither Yarrow nor Lipton remembers the verse in any detail, and the paper that was left in Yarrow's typewriter in 1958 has since been lost.
In 1961, Yarrow joined Paul Stookey and Mary Travers to form Peter, Paul and Mary. The group incorporated the song into their live performances before recording it in 1962; their 1962 recording of "Puff" reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and spent two weeks atop the Billboard easy listening chart in early 1963. It also reached number ten on Billboard's R&B chart.
Speculation about drug references
After the song's initial success, speculation arose — as early as a 1964 article in Newsweek — that the song contained veiled references to smoking marijuana. The word "paper" in the name of Puff's human friend (Jackie Paper) was said to be a reference to rolling papers, and the word "dragon" was interpreted as "draggin'," i.e. inhaling smoke; similarly, the name "Puff" was alleged to be a reference to taking a "puff" on a joint. The supposition was claimed to be common knowledge in a letter by a member of the public to The New York Times in 1984.
The authors of the song have repeatedly rejected this urban legend and have strongly and consistently denied that they intended any references to drug use. Peter Yarrow has frequently explained that "Puff" is about the hardships of growing older and has no relationship to drug-taking. He has also said of the song that it "never had any meaning other than the obvious one" and is about the "loss of innocence in children".
In 1976, Yarrow's bandmate Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary also upheld the song's innocence. He recorded a version of the song at the Sydney Opera House in March 1976, in which he set up a fictitious trial scene. The Prosecutor accused the song of being about marijuana, but Puff and Jackie protested. The judge finally leaves the case to the jury (the Opera House audience) and says if they will sing along with the song, it will be acquitted. The audience joins in with Stookey, and at the end of their sing-along, the judge declares "case dismissed."
A 1978 animated television special, Puff the Magic Dragon, adapts the song. It was followed by two sequels, Puff and the Land of Living Lies, and Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody. In all three films Burgess Meredith voiced Puff.
A 2007 book adaptation of the song's lyrics by Yarrow, Lipton, and illustrator Eric Puybaret gives the story a happier ending with a young girl (presumed by reviewers to be Jackie Paper's daughter) seeking out Puff to become her new companion. The lyrics remain unchanged from the Peter Paul and Mary version; the young girl is only seen in the pictures by illustrator Puybaret. On the last page of the book, she is introduced to Puff by an older Jackie Paper.
Both tune and elements of the lyrics were adapted in the controversial parody "Barack the Magic Negro", written and recorded by Paul Shanklin for Rush Limbaugh's radio program, after the term was first applied to then presidential candidate Obama by movie and culture critic, David Ehrenstein, in a Los Angeles Times op ed column of March 19, 2007. Yarrow condemned the act as "shocking and saddening in the extreme," stating that "taking a children's song and twisting it in such vulgar, mean-spirited way, is a slur to our entire country and our common agreement to move beyond racism… Puff, himself, if asked, would certainly agree."
In the mid 1970s an American Jewish band named Ruach created a parody version of the song entitled "Puff the Kosher Dragon". In the course of the song, Kosher Puff eats kosher food, has a Bar Mitzvah, fights anti-semites and finally marries and brings up his children as loyal members of the faith. The Ruach song has been noted as one of the first examples of a modern Jewish band using a popular secular tune.
During the Vietnam War the AC-47 Spooky gunship was nicknamed "Puff the Magic Dragon", after the song. The North Vietnamese had named the AC-47 the "Dragon" or "Dragon ship" because of its armament and firepower – the nickname soon caught on, and the American troops began to call the AC-47 "Puff the Magic Dragon".
Meet the Parents, a comedy film released in 2000, includes a scene where Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), argues with his future son-in-law Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller), about the meaning of the song. Gaylord tells Jack that some people think that to "puff the magic dragon means to smoke a marijuana cigarette". Jack, visibly irritated, replies that "Puff's just the name of the boy's magical dragon - are you a pothead, Focker?"
- Alvin and the Chipmunks covered the song for their 1965 album The Chipmunks Sing with Children.
- The Andrews Sisters covered it on their 1963 Dot Records album The Andrews Sisters Presents.
- Korean pop boy band Super Junior covered it on their Super Show 2 Tour.
|This article needs additional citations for verification. (September 2013)|
A German translation of the song ("Paff, der Zauberdrachen": Fred Oldörp, 1963), was first performed by Marlene Dietrich. Later covers include Daliah Lavi (1975) and Rosenstolz (2001). There is also a Low German version ("Drees, de Wunnerdraken": Knut Kiesewetter and Fiede Kay) and a Swiss-German version (Hans-Peter Treichler).
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