In 1963, American folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary made the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” popular.
The song quickly sailed into several charts. In the United States, it reached No. 1 in the Billboard Middle-Road Singles, No. 2 both in the Billboard Hot 100 and Cash Box Top 100, and No. 10 in the Billboard R&B. It also ranked in New Zealand, Canadian, and Australian charts.
However, after the song’s immediate success, rumors started to surface. “Puff the Magic Dragon” was speculated to be about drugs, especially smoking marijuana. This speculation was even fueled by an article the Newsweek magazine published in 1964, addressing the theory that several songs in pop-culture had hidden drug messages.
“Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea. And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee. Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff. And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff,” the song goes.
The Debate Goes On
People came up with the speculation that the word “dragon” was a variation of “draggin’,” like taking a drag from a joint to breathe in the smoke. Also, it was claimed that the word “by the sea” was said to mean “by the C” as in cannabis, while the word “paper” in the name of Jackie Paper was interpreted to be about rolling papers. Similarly, “mist” was said to stand for “smoke” while the land of “Honahlee” meant hashish.
Due to its alleged drug references, the song was even banned by the authorities in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Nevertheless, the authors of the song have consistently rejected and vehemently denied this interpretation. The song was written by the one-third of the group, Peter Yarrow, based on a poem about a dragon by Lenny Lipton.
“Lipton came to my place in Collegetown, sat down at the typewriter, and wrote some poetic words – he had been thinking about Ogden Nash for a while. And he wrote part of what became the lyric,” Yarrow recalled.
“He actually left the piece of paper in the typewriter when he left because he was absorbed in getting to his exams. It was not intended to be a lyric of a song or anything – it was just something that he typed on paper, and I looked at it and loved it. I wrote the rest of the words to give it a song form and a dramatic arch, and the music to it.”
The band claimed that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is actually about losing childhood innocence.
“‘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,” Lipton said, who was given by Yarrow half of the songwriting credit. “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.”
The song tells the tale of an ageless dragon named Puff and his buddy, a little boy, Jackie Paper. As the little boy grew up, he started losing interest in childhood’s imaginary adventures and left Puff to be with himself. The song’s story all happened in the fictional land of “Honalee” and it ended with the mighty dragon sadly slipping into his cave.
“Peter wrote the song in 1958, and it’s not about Marijuana,” band member Mary Travers insisted. “Believe me, if he wanted to write a song about Marijuana, he would have written a song about Marijuana.”
You can listen to “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the video below.
Peter Paul and Mary