The TRUTH About Puff The Magic Dragon

by admin on September 9, 2011

     It has often been claimed that the The Peter, Paul & Mary classic Puff, the Magic Dragon is a loosely-coded song about marijuana. Even Ben Stiller's character Greg Focker helped perpetuate this notion. Well, Paul McCartney is still alive and Puff, the Magic Dragon is not about marijuana, or any other type of drug. It is what its writers have always claimed it to be: a song about the innocence of childhood lost.
      The poem that formed the basis of the song Puff, the Magic Dragon was written in 1959 by Leonard Lipton, a nineteen-year-old Cornell student. Lipton was inspired by an Ogden Nash rhyme about a "Really-O Truly-O Dragon," and, using a dragon as the central figure, he came up with a poem about the end of childhood innocence. Lipton passed his work along to a friend, fellow Cornell student (and folk music enthusiast) Peter Yarrow, who put a melody to the words and wrote additional lyrics to create the song Puff, the Magic Dragon. After Yarrow teamed up with Mary Travers and Paul Stookey in 1961 to form Peter, Paul & Mary, the trio performed the song in live shows; their 1962 recording of Puff reached #2 on the Billboard charts in early 1963.
      The 1960s being what they were, however, any song based on oblique or allegorical lyrics was subject to reinterpretation as a "drug song," and so it was with Puff. (For Peter, Paul & Mary, at least, the revelation that their song was "really" about marijuana came after the song had finished its chart run; other groups were not so fortunate, and accusations of "drug lyrics" caused some radio stations to ban songs such as the Byrds' Eight Miles High from their playlists.) Puff was an obvious name for a song about smoking pot; little Jackie Paper's surname referred to rolling papers; "autumn mist" was either clouds of marijuana smoke or a drug-induced state; the land of "Hanah Lee" was really the Hawaiian village of Hanalei, known for its particularly potent marijuana plants; and so on. As Peter Yarrow has demonstrated in countless concert performances, any song — even The Star-Spangled Banner — can be interpreted as a "drug song."
      If the sheer ridiculousness of this rumor isn't enough to convince the faithful that Puff, the Magic Dragon is not a drug song, here is what the people who created it have said about the matter:

Leonard Lipton (co-writer):  "Puff" is about loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world. It's surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass. I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying. It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.

 

 

Peter Yarrow (co-writer):  As the principal writer of the song, I can assure you it's a song about innocence lost. It's easier to interpret "The Star-Spangled Banner" as a drug song than "Puff, the Magic Dragon." This is just a funny rumor that was promulgated by Newsweek magazine. There is no basis for it. It's inane at this point and really unfortunate, because even in Hong Kong it's not played because of the allegation it's about drugs. But I assure you it's not.

 

Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary):  Peter wrote the song in 1958 [sic], and it is not about marijuana. Believe me, if he wanted to write a song about marijuana, he would have written a song about marijuana.

Sorry Greg …. sometimes you just need to trust the artist!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vince Herdman September 22, 2011 at 5:15 PM

I was watching a show on PP&M and it is my understanding from the story related on the show that Yarrow didn't know at first who wrote the poem. It was left either in the typewriter or on the desk of a friend of Yarrow's. He found it a put it to music. Afterwards when he discovered who had actually written the words, he gave co-author credit to Lipton and also gave him part of the royalties already collected from the song's sales and airplay.
This may not be the actual account of the song, but is sounds good.

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admin September 22, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Yes Vince ….. I’ve heard some of that background as well. Nice of Yarrow don’t you think?

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