Reader’s Choice: Song #26/250: Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary

Paul Stookey, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow

“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.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Songs #32: No More Auction Block For Me by Odetta (+) Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan (+) A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Songs #32: No More Auction Block For Me by Odetta (+) Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan (+) A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke.

In 1833, the British House of Commons, along with the House of Lords, passed the Abolition of Slavery Act. This piece of legislation legally prohibited anyone in the UK or their colonies from owning slaves and/or from being engaged in the trading of slaves anywhere in the world. The legal phrase, “anywhere in the world” included the colony that would eventually become Canada. In practical terms, what that meant was that slave owners would be compensated by The Crown for the loss of “their work force” and the freed slaves would be allowed to own small plots of land in regulated areas and begin the process of starting a life for themselves on their own terms.

The news that Canada was a land where freedom lay, was a very enticing message to those people of colour who still suffered under the yoke of oppression in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation would not come into effect in America for almost thirty more years. In those intervening years, many people of colour began to organize. In the past, they might wish to escape from the plantation they found themselves on but, in practical reality, they had nowhere safe to run to because slavery was legal everywhere in North America. But, when the British abolished slavery and Canada became a safe haven, suddenly American slaves had somewhere to go. It was during the time between 1833 and 1863 that the Underground Railway sprang into action; helping runaway slaves acquire safe passage through the US and across the Canadian border. *(We talked about this in the post dedicated to the song, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, which you can read here).

Needless to say, the process of escaping a life of bondage, travelling under threat of death if captured and then, once you arrived safely in Canada, starting a brand new life in a strange land with absolutely nothing but the clothes on your back and the community of others in the same situation as you, must have been incredibly difficult. There is no sugar-coating what went on. It was the toughest of times for all who sought freedom. One of the ways that those escaping slavery buoyed their courage was through song. In particular, once in Canada, there came to be a spiritual written (of unknown origin/authorship) called, “No More Auction Block For Me”. If you are unaware, one of the very first experiences for newly arrived slaves in America was to be put up, naked, on an auction block and bid for by slave traders and plantation masters. It was a terrifying and humiliating experience, whereby real humans were treated no better than livestock. In any event, one aspect of life in Canada was that no person of colour would ever have to experience being on an auction block again. This was important for those who were adults and who had made the perilous trek to Canada but, it meant even more as these adults looked at their small children and dreamed of a better, safer future for them.

Almost a century later, we arrive at a time in US history when tens of thousands of people were marching and protesting for changes in the law that, in time, became The Civil Rights Act. But, before that happened, there were many marches and sit-ins, bus boycotts and demonstrations aimed at integrating schools, restaurants, etc. and, in the tradition of those searching for freedom, spirituals played a prominent role. One of those Gospel-tinged songs that was resurrected for this moment in time was “No More Auction Block For Me” which, along with “We Shall Overcome”, became the de-facto anthems of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the people who became the face of this aspect of the Civil Rights Movement was a lady named Odetta Holmes or, simply, just Odetta. Odetta had been singing ever since she was a child. She received formal musical training with the hope that one day she would be able to perform on an operatic stage as one of the world’s great opera singers. But, as often happens, destiny called in the form of The Civil Rights Movement. Odetta was, not only a trained singer but, also, a determined social activist and, as such, she readily volunteered to lead marchers and audiences in song. The song she became known for singing was a revival of “No More Auction Block For Me”. She sang this song at marches all over the American south and, most prominently, she sang at the famous, “March on Washington” when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Obviously, Odetta’s contribution to the cause of Civil Rights is important but, what does it have to do with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”? Well, simply put, before you finish reading this post, you need to listen to Odetta sing, “No More Auction Block For Me”. When you do, you will notice something that sounds familiar. That “something” is the melody to “Blowin’ in the Wind”. As it turns out, the melodies in both songs are virtually identical. What this signifies is that Bob Dylan nicked the melody of “No More Auction Block For Me” almost completely when it came time for him to write the lyrics for “Blowin’ in the Wind”. He admitted as much in a documentary that Martin Scorsese filmed about his life. He stated that, with the melody complete, the adding of words was a relatively simple process which he was able to complete in one day. So, as much as many people view “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an anti-war protest song, for Dylan, it was a song that was influenced by slavery and the Civil Rights movement. And, furthermore, he didn’t even promote the song very much himself. What caused “Blown’ in the Wind” to become as well known and popular a song as it did was when the Folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary covered it, taking it all the way to #1 on the charts. With the heavy lifting done by Peter, Paul and Mary, as far as popularizing the song goes, Bob Dylan took advantage by debuting his take on the song at his famous appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. It was after that performance that “Blowin’ in the Wind” reverted back to being a Bob Dylan song.

Because “Blowin’ in the Wind” was rooted in the traditions of “Negro Spirituals“, it was recognized as such by those within the Civil Rights movement, as well as, by those singers of colour who were still experiencing racism while plying their trade on stage, as being a song that captured the spirit of their struggle. Prominent singers such as Mavis Staples were blown away by the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and, initially, refused to believe that a young, white boy in his early twenties could possess such wisdom. Another singer who was astounded and impressed, at the same time, was Sam Cooke. By the time “Blowin’ in the Wind” was reaching the top of the charts, Sam Cooke was enjoying success with white audiences with songs such as “You Send Me”, “Summertime”, “I’ll Come Running Back To You”, “Cupid” and many more. It is appropriate to call Sam Cooke a music star of some renown. So, when he heard, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, he grew angry at himself for not producing songs of that calibre that spoke to the condition that he and his family and friends experienced on a daily basis. It wasn’t long after hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the first time that he was driving to a concert in Louisiana and showed up at a hotel where he had made a reservation. Upon walking into the lobby, he was informed that his reservation was no longer valid and that he, his family and his crew would all have to leave. Needless to say, Cooke became enraged and raised his voice in violent opposition. He and his party did manage to find other accommodations but, when they showed up at their next hotel, the police were waiting and he was arrested. Sam Cooke decided, then and there, that his days of writing sweet ballads for white audiences were through. Upon his release from jail, he sat down straight away and penned the seminal classic song, “A Change is Gonna Come”. This song spoke to the myriad injustices and slights that he, as a person of colour, had to endure on a daily basis. It, also, stated his hope and belief that one day, through continued pressure and purposeful action that things might change for the better.

The song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was only ever performed live one time. The musical arrangement involved lush string accompaniment and, as such, Sam Cooke could not afford to reproduce the song live because it was cost prohibitive. However, for an appearance on Late Night with Johnny Carson, money was made available for a string section to play along with Cooke as he sang and, as such, it was the only time this important song was ever played live. Not long after that show, Sam Cooke was killed in Los Angeles in, what was described as, a dispute about drugs. Cooke’s family insisted that he was attempting to keep someone from using some drugs and then, an argument ensued and he was stabbed, bleeding out in a seedy motel in the City of Angels.

Most often, when I go to write the story of whatever song is next on the countdown list, I end up writing the story of that song, alone. But, at other times, connections exist between songs that require them all to be discussed, which is what happened today. “Blowin’ in the Wind” would never have been written if not for a century-old Negro spiritual called, “No More Auction Block For Me” which, in turn, would never have been written if not for the British parliament passing a law that made Canada a free zone for slaves. The award-winning, “A Change is Gonna Come” would never have been written without a young black man named Sam Cooke hearing the words of a white boy that touched his heart in a way that gave his voice a new direction. In the end, we are all the better for the efforts of all three.

So, without further delay, here is Odetta, with her version of “No Auction Block For Me”, Bob Dylan AND Peter, Paul and Mary with “Blowin’ in the Wind”, as well as, the late, great Sam Cooke, with “A Change is Gonna Come”. Enjoy them all.

The link to the video for the song, “No More Auction Block For Me” as sung by Odetta, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Odetta, can be found here.

The link to the video for “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Bob Dylan, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, as sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Peter, Paul and Mary, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sam Cooke, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the most important and influential music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.