Puff, the Magic Dragon
|"Puff, the Magic Dragon"|
|Single by Peter, Paul and Mary|
|from the album Moving|
|Peter, Paul and Mary singles chronology|
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 line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" is generally thought to imply only that "little Jackie Paper" grew up.) The story of the song takes place "by the sea" in the fictional land of "Honahlee".
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 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 cocaine), the word "mist" stood for "smoke", the land of "Honahlee" stood for hashish, 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 interpretation and have strongly and consistently denied that they intended any references to drug use. Both Leonard Lipton and lead singer Peter 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 of the song that it "never had any meaning other than the obvious one" and is about the "loss of innocence in children", and dismissed the suggestion of association with drugs as "sloppy research".
In 1973, 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 1973, 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 left the case to the jury (the Opera House audience) and said if they will sing along with the song, it would be acquitted. The audience joined in with Stookey, and at the end of their sing-along, the judge declared: "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 No. 2, kept out of the No. 1 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.
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 will produce a live-action/animation film based on the song with Mike Mitchell as director.[needs update]
In September, 1979, there was a picture book version of the short that 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 use of the original song throughout the book as the short had.
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.
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 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-era 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 one website without primary citations indicates that the 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 the comedy movie Meet the Parents, Jack (Robert DeNiro) puts on a cassette tape of "Puff the Magic Dragon" in his car. This leads to an awkward conversation between Jack and Greg (Ben Stiller), in which the possible connection between the song and use of marijuana is discussed.
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