‘Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea, And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.’
I have developed a love/hate relationship with the song ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’, originally made popular by the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in early 1963. I am thrilled by the way my two-year-old daughter reacts to it each time she demands it to be played (which is three or four times a day), particularly when she really lets rip on singing ‘in a land called Hon-a-leeeeeeeee’. Yet I must admit that I also get a bit tired of hearing it – in the car, in the living room – to such a degree that I can now recite the words to all four verses. It is a song that I had never previously given much thought to, dismissing it as a daft Beatnik song whose originators may or may not have been covertly expressing a liking for hallucinogenic stimulants, for we are all, I’m sure, familiar with Ben Stiller as Greg Focker in the film Meet the Parents (2000) attempting to point out the supposed drug references to a rather naïve and deranged Robert De Niro as Jack Byrnes: “some people think that ‘to puff the magic dragon’ means to…puff…smoke…a marijuana cigarette”. However, I have come to accept, as Byrnes had, that Puff is in fact “just the name of the boy’s magical dragon” and that the lyrics are entirely innocent, while I have found a whole new appreciation of the song through experiencing my daughter’s obvious delight in it, while wondering at its ruminations on the imaginative and creative play of children, and the subsequent loss of this on the journey to adulthood.
The version of ‘Puff’ that I play for my daughter is a crisply recorded duet sung by Peter Yarrow (of the original Peter, Paul and Mary) and his daughter Bethany for a CD to accompany a children’s book illustrated by Frenchman Eric Puybaret in 2007, yet the song has a long and intriguing history. It was a freshperson at Cornell University in Ithica, New York by the name of Lenny Lipton who came up with the words in 1959 that would feature in the song, after he had been reading a lighthearted piece of narrative verse by Ogden Nash in the college library, called The Tale of Custard Dragon (1936). Nash’s poem tells the story of a girl called Belinda who ‘lives in a little white house’ where she keeps company with a number of pets, including a ‘little black kitten’, a ‘little yellow dog’ and a ‘realio, trulio, little pet dragon’. It describes how the eponymous dragon is considered a bit of a coward up until he startles everyone by attacking a pirate who has broken into the house with evil intent: ‘But up jumped Custard, snorting like an engine, / Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon, / With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm / He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.’ The dragon surprises everyone further when, after being shot at with ‘two bullets’, he proceeds to eat the pirate: ‘And Custard gobbled him, every bit.’
Lenny Lipton describes in his blog, with little modesty, how he left the college library at Willard Straight Hall and walked down State Street to the apartment of a friend and fellow student, Yarrow, with the intention to compose his own fire-breathing-beast-related verse: ‘I thought to myself, “I can do better than Ogden Nash’s poem about a dragon.” Maybe I did.’ Obviously inspired by the fantastic idea of a child befriending a creature that is mythically seen as a fierce and gigantic lizard-type monster with wings, he used Yarrow’s typewriter to bash out the poem while waiting to go out to dinner, and then left it there, forgetting all about it, until, we presume, he became aware of the ascension of his friend’s folk trio several years later.
Yarrow, after completing his psychology degree at Cornell, got together with stand-up comedian Noel Paul Stookey and actress/singer Mary Travers in 1961 to form Peter, Paul and Mary, at the time of the folk music revival that had sprung up around the Greenwich Village scene in New York. They were managed by Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman and were noted for their close-harmony singing and performances of sugary versions of folk protest songs that commonly addressed the civil rights movement. With Yarrow on guitar, they scored big hits with the Pete Seeger songs ‘If I had a Hammer’ (a.k.a. ‘the Hammer Song’) and ‘Where have all the Flowers gone?’, before Yarrow took notice of the poem that Lipton had left on his typewriter and decided, naturally enough (you might think), to put it to music. The trio then recorded ‘Puff’ in 1962, with the song making the USA Billboard Chart in April the following year, reaching number two on 11 May. It kept company with the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin’ USA’, the Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’, and Mongo Santamaria’s perhaps less celebrated ‘Watermelon Man’ (no, I don’t know it either), during the relatively innocent days before President Kennedy got himself assassinated and the Vietnam War got properly underway, and before the Beatles began to take over the American charts at the start of the British Invasion. It is fair to say that the song was probably the only one around at that time about a lonely boy befriending a magic dragon in a far-off and misty island, populated by friendly pirates and rife with hidden caves (and I struggle to think of any other songs on this subject made since).
‘Puff’ clearly gained popularity very quickly, in part because of the exquisite three-part vocal harmonies by which Peter, Paul and Mary made their name, but also because of the song’s enticing and tragedy-laden narrative involving Jackie Paper loving ‘that rascal Puff’, frolicking innocently with him in the autumn mist, and travelling with him in ‘a boat with billowed sail’, until he seemingly outgrows this improbable companionship and sends the eternally childlike dragon into a state of depression: ‘His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain / Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.’ The lyrics, as Lipton himself has stated, are meant to parallel the theme of J.M. Barry’s Peter Pan, whose eponymous hero, like Puff, never grows up, and they evoke the essential sadness of how children, in contrast, lose their innocence as they grow older and let go of their childish fancies and playthings. This loss of innocence is symbolised by Jackie no longer playing with Puff at the end of the narrative, who may in fact just be a figment of his boyish imagination anyway, with the dragon then sadly slipping ‘into his cave’.
After being such a massive commercial success, ‘Puff’ was branded as something of a folk standard, with Tom Paxton, among others, stepping up to perform it, even though it is hard to define the song as an actual ‘folk’ record because, with regard to common opinion on the matter, it was hardly passed around orally within a community, and we do know who the writers were. In view of its obvious money-spinning propensity, however, Yarrow loyally tracked down Lipton and gave him a writing credit for the song, which must have pleased the unknown poet quite substantially (not a bad result for such a short spell of work!), while Peter, Paul and Mary drew on its success by going on to have a hit with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in June 1963, another message song concerning civil rights, as well as a version of ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. They further recorded an interpretation of the folk standard ‘All My Trials’, all of which songs were a very far cry from the land of Honalee.
The fortunes of ‘Puff’ took an unexpected and rather dark turn very suddenly in 1964, when a columnist called Dorothy Kilgallen wrote a piece in Newsweek pointing out that the song contained references to smoking marijuana cigarettes, thereby consigning it to an endless round of drug gossip that would eventually define it. This gossip revolved around the idea that ‘Jackie Paper’ symbolised the cigarette paper by which to roll joints, that ‘puff’ meant to smoke said joints, that the ‘autumn mist’ in the song stood for the cloud of smoke consequently produced, and that the town of ‘Honalee’ was actually a real place on the island of Kauai (unbeknownst to the writer when he composed the words), renowned for its marijuana plants, beaches and accompanying cliffs that were said to look like a dragon. With consequent accusations in the air that the group condoned drug use, Peter, Paul and Mary nevertheless continued to perform ‘Puff’ in their live sets, as on the ‘Tonight in Person’ TV show in 1966, before the song was well and truly adopted by the hippie counterculture amidst increasing recreational drug use among the youth. The hippies’ approval of the record found particular expression at the infamous Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1967, attended by Yarrow himself and representing one of the most violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations of the era. It was here that a host of left-wing radicals gathered outside the Hilton Hotel and bizarrely responded to policeman training rifles upon them by singing about Puff and Jackie Paper, alongside the other Yarrow-endorsed tune, ‘If I Had a Hammer’.
The authors of ‘Puff’ were of course quick to deny that the song was about marijuana, with Lipton continuing to explain that when he originally wrote the words, before the emergence of the flower-power generation, he knew of very little recreational drug use among young people, certainly within the realm he knew: ‘We’re talking about Cornell in 1958. People were going to hootenannies – they weren’t smoking joints.’ Lipton, indeed, obviously gets rather tired of people asking him about the supposed drug references, while Yarrow also has said of the song that it “never had any meaning other than the obvious one”, this being the “loss of innocence in children”. Yet, despite rigorous denials from the writers, the subject of marijuana continues to overshadow the song’s reception, because it takes its place firmly alongside the Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and the Byrd’s ‘Eight Miles High’ as being ‘one of those 60s songs about drugs’. Indeed, you only have to go as far as YouTube to see how it dominates any kind of discussion of the song, with Honey Badger, for one, getting rather irate about it: ‘How did somebody think this was about drugs? It’s obviously about a fucking loopy ass dragon. Stop reading into it.’ Biggle Piggle meanwhile thinks that the whole drug thing has got a bit out of hand: ‘Even if this song is about weed, they obviously wouldn’t admit that; who cares though?’ Biggle, incidentally, has his own, perhaps surprising, interpretation of the song all of his own: ‘I always got the feeling that Puff was a toy kite (perhaps the Chinese dragon kind) frolicking in the mist/by the sea/along the cherry lane… the boy imagined going everywhere while flying his kite, like he was flying himself and everything was below him (noble kings/princes/pirates)’.
‘Who cares though?’, indeed. What matters is that ‘Puff’ endures as an immensely popular children’s song that does get handed down through generations – much like a folk song should, in fact. Lipton today ponders this notion by stating that ‘the few minutes I put into writing the poem seem to me to be all out of proportion to the benefit I’ve reaped from “Puff, the Magic the Dragon” or, indeed, the benefit the world has derived from “Puff, the Magic Dragon”.’ The record can further be seen to have inspired the Disney film Pete’s Dragon in 1977, while we can also see its resonance in the computer-animated comedy Toy Story 3, where Andy, the boy in the film, comes of age and no longer plays with the toys that he had loved so much as a child, leaving them sad and neglected. The song has also been updated slightly for newcomers, with Yarrow changing the line ‘A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys’ to ‘…not so little girls and boys’. Moreover, in contemporary book versions, we see that a girl comes to play with Puff (perhaps Jackie’s daughter?) after Jackie has wandered off and left him, even though this is not signified in the original song. In such a way, the song is open to new and imaginative reinterpretations, Puybaret’s paintings further adding an enticing ephemeral atmosphere to the story. Most definitely, then, the tale of Puff itself is being ‘reimagined’ for new generations to enjoy.
I have heard of children, together with their nostalgia-affected parents, getting rather weepy over ‘Puff’ because of its sad ending, though I have yet to experience this myself. For now, my daughter adores the overall sound of the song and seems to revel simply in the idea of a dragon playing by the sea. And while I am certainly overfamiliar with the song, it undoubtedly gets my partner and I through many a long car journey by soothing the savage breast of our little one, together with ‘Froggie went a-Courtin’, of course. Next though, before the movie version of ‘Puff’ finally makes it to the big screen (as has been rumoured), I really must learn to play the song on my dusty old acoustic guitar. Cheers Peter!