Puff, the Magic Dragon
|"Puff, the Magic Dragon"|
|Single by Peter, Paul and Mary|
|from the album Moving|
|Peter, Paul and Mary singles chronology|
"Puff, the Magic Dragon" (or just "Puff") is a song written by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary from a poem by Leonard Lipton. It was made popular by Yarrow's group in a 1962 recording released in January 1963.
Lipton wrote a poem about a dragon in 1959, and when Yarrow found it, he wrote the lyrics to "Puff" based on the poem. After the song was released, Yarrow searched for Lipton to give him credit for the song.
The lyrics for "Puff, the Magic Dragon" are based on a 1959 poem by Leonard Lipton, then 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 to be with himself. The story of the song takes place "by the sea" in the fictional land of "Honah Lee".
Lipton was friends with 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.
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", to be fair to boys and girls. The original poem also had a stanza that was not incorporated 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.
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, the words "by the sea" were interpreted as "by the C" (as in cannabis), the word "mist" stood for "smoke", the land of "Honahlee" stood for hashish, and "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 interpretation and have strongly and consistently denied that they intended any references to drug use. Both Lipton and Yarrow have stated, "'Puff, the Magic Dragon' is not about drugs." Yarrow has frequently explained that the song is about the hardships of growing older and has no relationship to drug-taking. He has also said that the song has "never had any meaning other than the obvious one" and is about the "loss of innocence in children." He has dismissed the suggestion of it being associated with drugs as "sloppy research".
In 1973, Peter Yarrow's bandmate, Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, also upheld the song's innocence in a novel way. He recorded a version of the song at the Sydney Opera House in March 1973 where he set up a fictitious trial scene. The prosecutor of the trial claimed the song was about marijuana, but Puff and Jackie protested. The judge finally left the case to the "jury" (the Opera House audience) and said if they would sing along, the song would be acquitted. The audience joined in with Stookey and at the end of their sing-along, the judge declared the "case dismissed."
Notable recordings and chart performance
In 1961, Peter 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. The trio's 1962 recording of "Puff the Magic Dragon" entered the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 charts on March 30, 1963, and peaked at number two, kept out of the top spot by "I Will Follow Him" by Little Peggy March. It topped Billboard's Adult Contemporary charts. It also reached number ten on Billboard's R&B chart. In Canada, the song reached number four in April 1963.
A 1978 animated television special, Puff the Magic Dragon, adapted the song. It was followed by two sequels, Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of the Living Lies and Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody. In all three films, Burgess Meredith voiced Puff. In December 2016, it was announced that Fox Animation would produce a live-action/animation film based on the song with Mike Mitchell as director.[needs update]
In September 1979, a picture-book version of the short used pictures based on the animated feature. It was published by Avon Books and dedicated to Peter, Paul, and Mary. The book featured words and sheet music to several songs that were featured in the short at the back of the book. This included "The Boat Song" and "Weave Me the Sunshine". The book also used the original song throughout the book as the short had.
In 2007, jazz pianist Jason Rebello recorded and released an album entitled Jazz Rainbow featuring the song "Puff, the Magic Dragon" arranged for a jazz trio.
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.
The tune was used by Versatec, a computer printer company, in the promotional LP Push the Magic Button for the song of the same name.
American fabulist Robert Coover wrote about the later lives of Puff and Jackie Paper in "Sir John Paper Returns to Honah-Lee," the first story in his collection A Child Again (McSweeney's Books, 2005).
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.
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 Barack 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."
Vietnam War gunship
During the Vietnam War, the AC-47 Spooky gunship was nicknamed the "Dragon" or "Dragon ship" by the Americans because of its armament and firepower—the nickname soon caught on, and American troops began to call the AC-47 "Puff the Magic Dragon." Robert Mason's Chickenhawk states, in reference to the Peter, Paul, and Mary song playing on a turntable: "'Puff the Magic Dragon' was making me uncomfortable. It was the saccharine song that had inspired the naming of the murderous Gatling-gun-armed C-47s. I couldn't listen."
In popular culture
- Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, said his Dragon spacecraft was named after "Puff, the Magic Dragon".
- The Orlando Magic mascot is named "Stuff the Magic Dragon".
- British comedian and magician John van der Put performs under the stage name "Piff the Magic Dragon" and jokes (as Piff) about having a more famous brother, ...named Steve.
- A comic strip from Gary Larson's The Far Side published on January 13, 1993, shows a dragon coated black by an oil spill from a sinking tanker, with the caption "A tragedy occurs off the coast of a land called Honah-Lee".
- List of Billboard Middle-Road Singles number ones of 1963
- "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", another song thought to be about the use of drugs, which was denied by its author
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