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Is it True What They Say About Puff, the Magic Dragon?

Culture | November 2, 2017

For as long as I can remember, there has been a debate about the true meaning of the words to the song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and the story behind it. Folk musicians, Peter, Paul and Mary, put this song at the top of the Billboard Charts over 50 years ago. The song was written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton, with their inspiration coming from the Ogden Nash poem entitled, “Really-O Truly-O Dragon.” The poem was to have been a “coming of age” piece of literature. It didn’t take long for stone-heads AND the straight-laced alike to detect some hidden (or not) connotations.

The famous song was written in 1959, right on the brink of the counterculture that rocked America. Ready or not, the times… they-were-a-changing! The hippies were getting their “feel-good-on” and sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll were front and center beginning in the early 1960’s. The supposed connotations of “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” were thought to have been about getting high; more specifically, smoking marijuana.  

“Chasing the Dragon” was well known at the time as being Chinese slang for inhaling vapor. The vapor of Morphine, Heroin, Oxycodone, Opium and Methamphetamine to name a few drugs that come to mind. It made perfect sense to many that the song could also be referring to Marijuana since it was commonly being smoked for recreation.

If you know anything about smoking marijuana and take the time to really listen to the song. It is not hard to buy into the mindset that it was about getting high. In case you have forgotten, the lyrics are as follows:

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal, Puff
And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff, oh
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Together they would travel on a 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 flag when Puff roared out his name, oh
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant 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 life-long friend, Puff could not be brave
So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave, oh
Puff, the magic dragon, lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee
Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honahlee

Many have thought that the dragon, “Puff,” referred to taking a “drag” on something; much like smoking a joint, perhaps. Little “Jackie Paper” and the sealing wax is thought to have referred to rolling papers used to roll the joints. The “autumn mist” lends itself to the idea of Marijuana smoke and/or being high. “Hanahlee” resembles the small Hawaiian village of Hanalei, which was noted for cultivating “superb” Marijuana.  

Newsweek Magazine published an article in 1964 that addressed the theory that many pop-culture songs had hidden drug references; including, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” When asked about the song, Leonard Lipton, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers claimed that the song truly was a song about the innocence of childhood being lost. They are quoted as follows:

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 (who ran a cover story about covert drug messages in pop music). 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. When ‘Puff’ was written, I was too innocent to know about drugs. What kind of mean spirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?”

Mary Travers: “Peter wrote the song in 1958 and it’s not about Marijuana. Believe me, if he wanted to write a song about Marijuana, he would have written a song about Marijuana.”

We have heard straight from the source that “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is a song about losing childhood innocence. The release of the song in the 1960’s, however, relative to the changing times, was quite significant. Everyone can and will form their own opinion. The debate lives on!

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.