The Story Behind the Song: Puff the Magic Dragon
Folk Singers Peter, Paul and Mary
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
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
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." You can also read an interview with Leonard Lipton in this LA Weekly article published in February 2015.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Puff spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the number two spot on May 11th, 1963.
- 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
© 2016 Kaili Bisson