Puff, the Magic Dragon, has been my friend for more than 50 years. It was in the spring of 1959 that I wrote the poem that became the song Puff, the Magic Dragon. I was a freshman at Cornell. I had been at the library at Willard Straight Hall, the Student Union building, and I’d read a sentimental poem about a dragon by Ogden Nash. As I walked down State Street to the apartment of Peter Yarrow – who became the “Peter” of Peter, Paul and Mary, and who set my poem to music – I thought to myself, “I can do better than Ogden Nash’s poem about a dragon.” Maybe I did.
Puff, the Magic Dragon has become part of the folk mythology, not only of Western Europe but of much of the world. The few minutes I put into writing the poem seem to me to be all out of proportion to the benefit I’ve reaped from Puff, the Magic the Dragon or, indeed, the benefit the world has derived from Puff, the Magic Dragon. Puff’s popularity is a phenomenon that I don’t comprehend, because Puff has not been promoted like Mickey Mouse, for example. Puff, the Magic Dragon got to where he is because people like him, not because of any marketing effort – because there has been little of that. I’m hoping that Puff will get turned into a feature film but Puff‘s been in development hell for 20 years (the cave was a better place to be) and I don’t know what chance he has of becoming a movie star.
Puff, the Magic Dragon has been interpreted – usually misinterpreted – time and again by many people. When a work is out there people are free to interpret it any way they want. I think Puff, the Magic Dragon is about a little boy and a dragon. I think there are strong parallels between the story told in the song and Peter Pan. You’ve got Jackie Paper, you’ve got Wendy. You’ve got Honalee, you’ve got Neverland. You’ve got pirates, you’ve got pirates. Puff sadly declines in his cave, which reminds me of Tinker Bell needing to be revived. There are parallel elements, and the theme is similar. Peter Pan is a boy who won’t grow up and, believe me, I don’t blame him. Jackie Paper, though, does grow up and so leaves Puff.
Immediately after the Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording came out in 1962, Dorothy Kilgallen, who was a columnist in a New York newspaper (it might have been the Daily News) wrote a piece saying that Puff, the Magic Dragon was about marijuana, hah-hah-hah-poke-in-the-ribs. When I was home from school as a kid my mom and I would listen to her on the radio. She had a talk show with her husband Dick. I think the show was called Dorothy and Dick and it was on WOR. The first thing I thought when confronted with her newspaper column was disbelief – how could that nice lady say such a thing? The second thing I thought was: What can you expect from a woman without a chin. She had a receding chin. Kind of nonexistent.
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. It was Pete Seeger and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” not ”One Toke Over the Line Sweet Jesus.”
Over the years my feelings about Puff have changed. There was a point when I ignored Puff, the Magic Dragon. That was during the sixties when I distanced myself from the namesake gunship loaded with Gatling guns flown in Vietnam. There were times when I was annoyed with Puff, the Magic Dragon – especially when people kept asked me, “Is Puff a song about marijuana?” They persist to this very day. People often ask me the question, and usually they are sheepish about it. My advice to people is this: If you feel sheepish don’t ask the question. Just be quiet. I’ve even been asked that question in a deposition in a patent infringement case by a Harvard trained lawyer who should have known better. Because he kept me at the law offices at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal past the departure of the last ferry of the day I answered his question this way: “You’ve got a little boy and a raunchy dragon. You figure it out.”
This May will be the fiftieth birthday of Puff, but you might want to count the anniversary from when the record was released in 1963. In any event, here’s to Puff, the Magic Dragon. Puff was my financier. Puff funded my work in electronic stereoscopic displays. Puff, unlike my other investors, never asked for anything back. He never grilled me at a board meeting, he never lectured me about having to make a profit, he never told me that I had to cut out projects I loved. He never ask for subordinated this or that or warrants. He never was greedy or a pain in the ass. He never lied to me or changed the deal at the eleventh hour. He was always respectful. Puff’s been a generous, forgiving and kindly investor – one who has never stopped giving. So thank you, Puff. Thank you, Jackie Paper. And thank you, Honalee. I’m heading your way.