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Origins: Puff the Magic Dragon

Puff the Magic Dragon, Lipton & Yarrow, Macmillan

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.
Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff
And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.

Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.
Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.

Together they would travel on boat with billowed sail
Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail
Noble kings and princes would bow whene’er they came
Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name.

CHORUS

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys
Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave
So, Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.

Appearing on the 1963 Peter, Paul & Mary album “Moving“, the song is based on a poem written by Leonard Lipton in the late fifties. When Peter, Paul & Mary released an album for children in 1969, the song was included there and, despite its less-than-upbeat message, has become a nursery school favourite. It’s also picked up a myth or two on the way.

It’s not about heroin.

I get it, I really do. It’s about puff, and it’s got Paper and, er, wax and some totally heavy naval metaphors. But is not about heroin. Even though it was written by hippies.

It is said that the similarity between the phrases ‘Puff the magic dragon’ and ‘chasing the dragon’ is PROOF that the song is about smoking heroin. Because they’ve both got the word ‘dragon’ in them, see. Rumour has it that the song describes the experience of inhaling heroin and the little mind-journey that immediately follows.

It’s not about marijuana.

I get it, I really do. It’s about puff, and it’s got Paper and, er, mist and some totally heavy naval metaphors. But is not about marijuana. Even though it was written by hippies.

Those who think about this kind of thing have really gone to town on the coded references to the weed – barely a line of exposition passes without a knowing wink: cherry lane is, according to myth, the rolled joint (with the cherry being the lit end); Puff , autumn mist and billowing sails refer to the smoke; Honalee refers to the Hawaiian village of  Hanalei apparently noted for its crop. They might as well have called him Jackie King Size Rizla.

Alas, no. Puff the Magic Dragon is a bit of a tear-jerker, really. A dragon befriends a young’un and plays with him and loves him and eventually the young ‘un’s a young ‘un no more. Bereft, he stumbles into hermitry and stays in his cave for the rest of his life (which, him being immortal, is a very long time). Despite the occasional letter to the NY Times claiming otherwise, it’s a simple narrative folk number, written when Peter Yarrow found a poem written by Lenny Lipton on his typewriter and turned it into a song.

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