“Puff the Magic Dragon” was a #1 hit song for the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. It is a children’s song about a dragon and a small boy who maintain a strong friendship until one day when the boy leaves (by death or simply by going on with his life). It is a song about memories and sadness and loss, but, as well, it is about the happiness and joy of knowing someone whose heart you hold dear. I could end the post at this point. Perhaps I should because throughout the history of their career as a singing group, the members of Peter, Paul and Mary have been asked a lot about this song. The questions asked have always implied that there must be more to the story of this song than simply being about a rascally dragon named Puff. But, no matter who was doing the asking, the answers were always the same…”Puff The Magic Dragon” is an innocent children’s song. And thus, it must be so.
The origins of this song date back to a poem written by Ogden Nash entitled “The Tale of the Custard Dragon”. The story goes that one evening a friend of Peter Yarrow’s named Leonard Lipton was heading over to attend a dinner party. Arriving too early, Lipton stepped into a public library to kill some time. While there, he decided to browse some books of poetry. In doing so, he came across the poem by Nash (which you can read here). Lipton found the poem amusing. The storyline of the poem caused Lipton to begin thinking of his own dragon verse. When he finally arrived at the home of Peter Yarrow, he told his host about the idea for a poem. Yarrow invited Lipton to use his typewriter so as to “get the poem out of him”. So Lipton typed away and felt better for having done so. He left the paper in the typewriter and proceeded to have a smashing time at dinner with his friends. By the time the dinner party was over, Lipton left for home, leaving behind his hurriedly cobbled poem in Yarrow’s typewriter. The entire incident would have merely been fodder for a future dinner party anecdote if not for the fact that Peter Yarrow was a singer/songwriter. When he saw Lipton’s poem in his typewriter, the cadence of it struck him as possessing musical possibilities. So Yarrow tucked the poem away but always kept it in the back of his mind. Then one day, when Peter and his friends Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were writing songs for their second album, Yarrow pulled the poem back out, added some lyrics and created the song that we have all come to know as “Puff the Magic Dragon”. When the group actually recorded the song and placed it on the album, Yarrow was sure to add Lipton’s name for a songwriting credit. To this day, Lipton has earned royalties from his nearly forgotten poem. In addition to “Puff the Magic Dragon”, Peter, Paul and Mary had numerous hits as the Folk era exploded across America. They had Top Ten hits with songs such as “If I Had a Hammer”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. The trio was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
But to this day, there are many who insist that their most famous song, “Puff the Magic Dragon”, has to be a song about marijuana. The strength of this myth is so powerful that it was even mined for comedic gold in the movie Meet the Fockers (you can watch the scene here). But really, truthfully…the boy being named Jackie Paper has nothing to do with rolling papers. The character of a dragon named Puff has nothing to do with taking a “drag” or a “puff” on a joint. The fact that the dragon lives on the island of Honahlee and that there is an actual Honalua in Hawaii where marijuana has been known to be grown, has nothing at all to do with making this a song about drug use. It is just a children’s song about a boy and a dragon who are friends. That’s it. That’s the story according to Peter, Paul and Mary.
Today’s song was nominated by my friend, JoAnn Kropf-Hedley. She is a grandmother and no doubt, believes this to be a wonderful children’s song, too. I am fairly confident that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a song that she shared with her daughter back in the day and again with her grandchildren today. It really is a lovely song and I am happy that it has been shared in such a way. I have always been an advocate for introducing children to poetry and music as early as possible when they are growing up. Teaching children to read doesn’t always have to be about books. There are many wonderful poems that have been written with children in mind. The imaginative language used in poems such as “The Tale of the Custard Dragon” by Odgen Nash is but one example. Reading is reading, no matter what form the words take. Beautiful, lyrical language is something to be treasured and shared. I thank JoAnn for sharing this song choice with me so that I can share it with all of you. If you happen to have a poem or song that made an impression on you as a child or as a parent, please feel free to let me know all about it in the comment box below. Until then, thanks for reading this post. Have a wonderful rest of your day.
The link to the video for the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here.
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