The Story Behind The Song: Puff The Magic Dragon

Updated on May 5, 2016
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2017 are stuck in her head.

Folk Singers Peter, Paul and Mary

A photo of Peter, Paul and Mary dated May 21, 1963
A photo of Peter, Paul and Mary dated May 21, 1963 | Source

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

— Corinthians 13:11 NKJV

Childhood's End

Who doesn’t remember and love this wonderful folk song for children, performed by the trio Peter, Paul and Mary?

I can still recall every word in every verse of this beloved tune, though I am reminded that, as a child, I had a tough time with “frolicked in the autumn mist” and came up with my own alternate words that kind of fit.

Puff The Magic Dragon evokes that magical time in all of our lives, when life was simple, Santa Clause was real, and when we actually played and let our imaginations take us to far-off lands like Honahlee. We invented imaginary friends and something like a magic dragon was very real to us indeed.

The song Puff The Magic Dragon brought some relief to youngsters too, by proving that dragons were not so fearsome after all. Before this song came along, bedtime for kiddies involved a ritual of leaping from the bedroom doorway onto the bed, so the dragons under the bed couldn’t grab you by the ankles and drag you away.

So, how did this song about a magic dragon and childhood's end come to be?

Who Wrote Puff The Magic Dragon?

The song we know and love began its life as a poem. written in the spring of 1959 by a young university student by the name of Leonard Lipton. Leonard was attending Cornell University in central New York near the picturesque Finger Lakes region. A physics major, Leonard seemed the unlikely author of poetry of any kind. But he was truly an artist, as we will discover later in this story.

Leonard was at a library on campus one evening and came across a book of poems by American poet Ogden Nash. One of these poems, "The Tale of Custard The Dragon", written by Nash in 1936, really stuck with Leonard. As he turned it over in his mind, he decided that he could write a poem better than the one by Nash.

One of Leonard's pals happened to be the roommate of a fellow by the name of Peter Yarrow. Leonard visited their apartment often, and on the same evening as his library visit, while nobody else was at the apartment, Leonard proceeded to put his own poem together on Peter’s old typewriter.

Belinda lived in a little white house,

With a little black kitten and a little gray mouse,

And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,

And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.

~ opening verse from "The Tale of Custard The Dragon"

How Did Puff The Magic Dragon Become a Song?

Peter Yarrow wrote the song before Peter, Paul and Mary came together as a group. The trio – Peter, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers – were folk singers who were working as solo acts, for pennies or a meal, in the coffee shops that abounded in those days. Folk-rock manager extraordinaire Albert Grossman was looking to cash in on the resurgence of folk music, and put the trio together in 1961. They quickly achieved fame with their first album, Peter, Paul and Mary, which was released in May of 1962 in both mono and stereo versions. The album contained the hits Lemon Tree and If I Had a Hammer, which reached #35 and #10 respectively on Billboard's Hot 100. Though the trio performed Puff The Magic Dragon in their live shows, they didn’t actually record the song until 1962 for their second album, Moving.

Years after Leonard had written and forgotten about the poem, a friend of his contacted him to tell him that Peter was looking for him. Peter had found the poem on his typewriter and had written the song based on Leonard's poem. Peter offered to give Leonard half of the song writing credits after it had already become a hit. This was pretty significant at the time, as Leonard was working as a camp counselor when Peter tracked him down.

And, to this day, Leonard is still receiving royalties from the song. Not that he needs them. The physics major from an Ivy League school went on to produce 25 films, and has a slew of patents to his name, including one for a technique for shooting 3D movies.

Peter, Paul and Mary

Photo of Peter, Paul and Mary from @1968.
Photo of Peter, Paul and Mary from @1968. | Source

Third Time Lucky

The group’s second album, Moving, was released January 15th, 1963. The first single from the album, a song called Big Boat, didn’t fare all that well, reaching the bottom of the Top 100 and only remaining there for two weeks. The second single was a tune called Settle Down, which peaked in 56th spot on the charts.

Then Puff was released. The song made the Easy Listening, R&B and Hot 100 charts, and was – and remains – an immensely popular song.

Peter, Paul and Mary Performing Puff Live in 1965

Is Puff The Magic Dragon a Song About Drugs?

The answer is no.

This urban legend actually started right after the release of the song in 1963 as the result of a story in a New York newspaper. The story speculated about the name Jackie Paper being a reference to rolling papers used in marijuana cigarettes. And the very name "Puff" supposedly implied smoking marijuana.

Both Peter and Lenny have vehemently denied that the song has any connection to drugs. The song is about childhood, and the loss of innocence that comes with the end of childhood, nothing more sinister than that. As Leonard wrote in a post on Wordpress in February 2009, "When I wrote Puff I didn’t know from marijuana. We’re talking about Cornell in 1958. People were going to hootenannies – they weren’t smoking joints."

5 PUFFacts

  1. Jackie Paper did not die, which is the way some people interpreted the lyrics. He simply grew up and no longer believed in magic dragons.
  2. There was an additional verse in the original poem that introduced a new child for Puff to play with, but neither Peter nor Leonard can recall the exact words.
  3. A new child - a girl - was introduced in a book published in 2007 by Peter and Leonard based on the song's lyrics. At the end of the story, the girl is introduced to Puff by Jackie Paper.
  4. Puff spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the number two spot on May 11th, 1963.
  5. Peter doesn't recall what happened to the original typed sheet of paper containing the poem.

Puff The Magic Dragon Movie

Puff was introduced to a whole new generation of young fans with the release of a movie adaptation by the same name in 1978. This half hour animated film was made for television, and aired on CBS October 30th of that year. In this short film, and both of its sequels, the voice of Puff was none other than Burgess Meredith.

The movie tells the story of a young boy who hasn't spoken in a very long time. When everyone, including his parents and doctors, has given up hope, Puff magically gets the little fellow talking again.

Puff The Magic Dragon Movie

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kaili Bisson

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      • profile image

        Tom Ryugo 

        11 months ago

        I always assumed the song was based on old English or Scottish folklore as it has that kind of image. But it also makes sense as a little boy imagining his toy dragon being magic - and as he grows older, he plays with it less and less until one day he quits playing with it altogether.

      • profile image

        JEFF SMITH 

        11 months ago

        This evening I was fortunate to spend a birthday dinner with my wife and her dad. As we sat eating dinner we were having catch up talk about family and things. When the dinner was over Ron brought up a something that was on his mind. We listened and then the story seemed to open up into his missions in Vietnam. He was contacted by someone a few weeks ago about his involvement in the Vietnam war. His mission was a medivac helicopter pilot and his assignment was to rescuer wounded and companies who were in trouble from enemy fire. On one such mission his craft was flying near the "hot zone" at roughly 3000 feet. His commander was flying at 5000 feet and a call came in from soldiers on the ground. They were under heavy fire and had many casualties. Ron radioed in for approval to fly into the "hot zone" and the reply from his commanding officer was, a defiant "No" as this was surely a suicide mission. Ron persisted not once but many times and having experience in the army knew he could call in fire power on 3 of the 4 sides of the pick up zone which would provide cover fire for a brief few moments. Again he was declined. Again he persisted not twice but many many times and said "you'll have to court marshal me then." His superior officer said to him, "Then go ahead but I will say off the record that I never gave you the ok."

        Ron immediately flew in to make the attempt to rescue those who called for help. When he flew his helicopter in "a green military medivac hewy, He flew alone into a barrage of firepower. The helicopter was designed to carry 6 men as passengers but there a great need for more missions with a higher risk of being shot down. He flew 3 missions that day into the same "hot zone" where he was able to pick up somewhere between 79 and 82 people on 3 separate missions. Thee men were loaded on in "heaps" because everyone wanted to be rescued.

        Somehow Ron was able to fly all 3 missions that day and when the day was over his commander asked him "who was flying with him?" I'm not sure of his exact words nor is he. But his chin seemed to quiver as he told the emotional part of the story. He as asked to take a look at his bird with his commander. When they examined the helicopter it had 47 holes in it including some in the blades which caused a serious vibration when it flew.

        That was 50 years ago and today he was printing off some 60 pages of comments from those whom he rescued. He didn't know those records existed until someone told him of them the week prior.

        So much our generation has yet to learn from those who fought in the ugly and distant wars of the past. Yet so grateful for the missions flown and the lessons we have yet to learn. May we always appreciate and recognize them for their efforts as well as those who gave it all for a cause some never believed in.

        In those moments I knew he wanted the respect and recognition for something so few of us will ever understand. It took a certain kind of a man to persist because he knew innocent men would die if he didn't fly to save them. He has a family at home with 4 children at that time and I'm sure those thoughts of losing a father did cross his mind. Just think of how many fathers were blessed that day to return home to raise their own children? All because of a man who wouldn't allow fear of being killed himself to alter the mission he was called to perform.

        Some never came home alive but for those who did for a "Silver Star" it was quite the price to pay for this mission on this day. Thank you Ron Jones for the missions you served and for the many who's lives were spared on that ugly day. There is a silver lining to the story and if some magic were to happen, Puff the Majic Dragon did fly that day.

      • Skydogger profile image

        Dave Wilkinson 

        11 months ago from Sheffield, South Yorkshire

        Puff is the song that always calmed my older child down when she was upset, even as a baby. Searching for a video of the group singing the song, we found the video mentioned above, this quickly became a favorite.

      • profile image

        dave burock 

        11 months ago

        All of us thought that the little boy in the song died, but apparently not. great song. my grandson, aiden, l0ves it also.

      • profile image

        Sherry 

        11 months ago

        PP&M were pure magic in concert. When they would sing "Puff" tears would fall across the room.

      • profile image

        Cathy 

        12 months ago

        One of the saddest songs i've ever heard. i cried as a child whenever i listened to it. I felt so bad for Puff!

      • profile image

        Brian Harvey 

        16 months ago

        The first time I visited Hanalei on Kauai, I tried to find out if that quaint oceanside village was connected to the song, but, alas, it is not. Nice little daydream fodder, though. Has anyone else tried to make that connection that you know of?

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        16 months ago from Canada

        Hello Dani, I do hope that singing this makes your day go better!

      • profile image

        Dani McDaniel 

        16 months ago

        I have always so loved this song. I think I'm just going to have to start singing it again. I'm always humming or singing as I go about my day this will make my day going about better!

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello Flourish and thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed this. It really was a very innocent little song.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        2 years ago from USA

        This was thoroughly entertaining and provided information that I had long ago wondered about. Glad you set the story straight about the innocent meaning behind the song, too.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello Peggy,

        Thank you for reading and sharing. Yes, those were different times, weren't they :-)

      • profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        2 years ago

        I loved all those songs by Peter, Paul and Mary including this one. Takes me back to the 1960s when I hear songs like this. Thanks! Will share.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello Kenneth,

        Thank you so much for reading this hub and writing such wonderful feedback. I just love the song too. I was also a big Captain K fan when I was a kid.

        I recall reading about the gunships in Nam being called after Puff...apparently, P, P and M hated that reference.

        And, the good news is that I have been one of your followers and avid readers for a long tine now...keep up the great work!

      • profile image

        Kenneth Avery 

        2 years ago

        Truly, without any doubt, My favorite song and hub. I am not blowing smoke. No pun intended.

        I have a few things to share with you.

        On the iconic Capt. Kangaroo (children's show), Magic Drawing Board had a routine that "he" drew with this song as his music. He drew Puff, Jackey, and all of the characters and like your hub brings to the front, a New kid showed up one day at Puff's cave and the entire process started all over again.

        I saw Peter, Paul, and Mary on PBS, Live from Carnegie Hall and they did this song last and mostly without music. The crowd, mostly moms and kids sang the song in total harmony without missing a lick.

        I admit it. Tears fell from my eyes for "I" felt a lot of emotions at this time of my life having worked for 23 years with our local paper; wrote scripts for a community theater three friends and I formed to do shows to give monies to charities and was on the radio with a friend of mine.

        I pretty much have accomplished all that I wanted to do.

        But Puff The Magic Dragon IS my favorite song.

        Fact: Those huge Huey helicopters used in Nam to deliver men and equipment were tagged "Puff The Magic Dragon."

        Question: If you are not following me, I BEG you to be one now. I know that I am one of your followers.

        I may not be the smartest guy on HP, but I do know talented writers and that means YOU.

        Your Friend for Life,

        Kenneth

      • Glenn Stok profile image

        Glenn Stok 

        2 years ago from Long Island, NY

        Yeah! It's amazing how much meaning there is in every line of the song.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hi Glenn,

        Thank you so much for your wonderful feedback. I'm glad you now know about Jackie Paper...so many people think Jackie died because the lyrics say "Dragons live forever, but not so little boys." But the next line is "Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys." :)

      • Glenn Stok profile image

        Glenn Stok 

        2 years ago from Long Island, NY

        Your hub brought back memories of a time when things were different. All childhoods come to an end. In some ways, with some people, they hold on in some way or another. The folk song Puff The Magic Dragon became more meaningful to me by reading your hub. You explained things I never even realized. I also thought that the friend had died. But it makes more sense that he simply grew up.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Thank you Phoenix. Mine too...I just love this little song :-)

      • phoenix2327 profile image

        Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

        2 years ago from United Kingdom

        Good hub. I remember this song very well. It's one of my guilty pleasures.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello Mel, that road trip was one you needed to make for many reasons it seems. I's so glad you were able to get the LP before it disappeared. Glad you enjoyed this!

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        2 years ago from San Diego California

        Curiously enough, on that same trip that took me through Colorado that I just wrote about, I absconded with my mother's Peter, Paul and Mary album, the first one that you mentioned. We played the groves off that record when we were kids, so I wanted to have it because she was getting ready to sell it. That album has deep sentimental value for me. Great hub!

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hi Alicia and thank you...so glad you enjoyed this article. I'm still humming it :-)

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        I loved the song about Puff the Magic Dragon when I first heard it and I still like it. I enjoyed reading this article and learning about the background of the song very much!

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello lambservant and thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Puff is such a sweet song, isn't it?

      • lambservant profile image

        Lori Colbo 

        2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

        Who doesn't love Peter Paul and Mary and Puff the Magic Dragon. You wrote this very well. Loved the stor y behind the song. Nice job.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello Harish, I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I loved this tune when I was a child and I still love it today.

      • Harishprasad profile image

        Harish Mamgain 

        2 years ago from New Delhi , India

        Hi Kaili ! What a wonderful hub about a folk song ! I thoroughly enjoyed this great stuff, and it reminded me of my childhood days when imagination ran so wild.

      • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

        Kaili Bisson 

        2 years ago from Canada

        Hello RTalloni, you are so welcome. I heard this on a 60s station the other day and it brought back all these wonderful memories. Too many children now seem to be glued to electronic devices...do any of them really play anymore like we did when we were kids?

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        2 years ago from the short journey

        Thanks for this look at a vintage folk song that so many continue to enjoy. Having heard the drug rumors I did wonder what the artists would have said about them. So many children need the opportunity to have a real childhood of carefree, imaginative make believe today. It's neat to hear this song again. :)

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