Thank you, Puff the Magic Dragon

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.

15 Responses to “Thank you, Puff the Magic Dragon”

  1. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives : The New Nixon: News and Commentary about the President, his Times, and his Legacy Says:

    [...] time later, Lenny Lipton —who went on to become a writer, filmmaker, and inventor— addressed the urban legends that quickly surrounded poor Puff: It was in the spring of 1959 that I wrote the poem that became [...]

    • lennylipton Says:

      Everybody has to start somewhere. Stories about the movie star who was a waiter are not worth reporting becuase everybody did something before they became known.

      I am not sure who you can contact at Technicolor. I am workign on a film system and will be showing it soon to the industry. It will fill a need just as you mentioned.

  2. ferret488 Says:

    Hi Lenny,

    I’m curious to know if you ever visited Kauai? I was just there. At the North Shore is a place, Hanalei, with both Beach and Caves. Also, they have a lot of coastal fog / mist there right now in the Fall. :)

    Thanks.

    George

    • lennylipton Says:

      I was amazed when I visted Kuai and went to Honalei. I had not heard of it when I wrote t he song but there it was — obviously Puff’s home.

      • ferret488 Says:

        Obviously a past life impression :) Thanks for the reply. George

      • stevenmsdt Says:

        Dear Lenny – My wife and I are sitting in Hanalei as I write this. We found this blog searching for the connection to the song that so many locals talk about – “Puff,” to them, is a giant rock formation at the west end of Hanalei Bay.
        What we found here was so much more enlightening and interesting than we had hoped for – We found not a hippy or a surfer, but an engineer. A filmmaker. A historian. A heckuva guy!!
        I must admit, I never really liked the song. I always thought that Puff could make new friends, and that Jackie Paper was a bit of a twit for abandoning his friend (I have a terrible Peter Pan complex myself, still a child at 44!). Now, having visited Hanalei and having read your blog, I find myself with a new interpretation (of my own devising!), and I like it quite a lot.
        Jackie Paper is still a twit. Growing up is overrated! But Puff now has a whole community of new friends in Hanalei – They love him here, and he is now a part of my and my wife’s travelogue.
        Cheers!!
        -Steven, Decompression Stop Studios

  3. danielrapo Says:

    Lenny – How great to have learned you wrote Puff! John N mentioned it in passing earlier today. And to think that all this time I had merely credited you as being the father of modern 3D technology!

    Thanks for writing this blurb. What a relief to find out first hand it ISN’T about getting stoned!

    I’m forwarding this to my brother who sang in the Cayuga’s Waiters while at Cornell (’90). They should cover Puff!

    Best,

    Daniel (FKI)

    • Lenny Lipton Says:

      Dear Daniel, Sorry for the late reply. I can’t control what people make of the song’s lyrics. But it is frustrating to think of being accused, in effect, of disguising a kid’s song as a message promoting pot.

  4. sandytho Says:

    And thank you, Lenny Lipton.

    I’m a 37 year old man, and tears still well up in my eyes every time I hear or sing Puff the Magic Dragon. Jackie’s lost childhood is mine. But that which is lost can be refound: as they enthusiastically explore the world around them, my young sons are reminding me how wonderful rocks, ants and pieces of string can be.

    Sandy

    • Lenny Lipton Says:

      Dear Sandy, The wonder of the song is that many people cry when they hear it. Little did I know that so many people would be touched by Puff.

  5. julesvs Says:

    Dear Lenny,

    One of my greatest childhood memories, is the story of Puff! I remember the song and the story and still get chills when reading it to my children. It is so wonderful to see my kids interest in the same thing, this many years later. I just read the story of how you came to write Puff and my son was so interested.

    With so many great movies today for children and families and all of the amazing technology, are there any plans for the story of Puff to become a movie? I can only imagine what a huge success it would be.

    Thank you~
    Jules

  6. folkisdead Says:

    Hi Lenny,

    I’m a father who decided to express love to small ones (especially my daughter) through an album of song. My nephew had a conversation with me about how “sad and lonely” the Puff story is. In an attempt to assure him that as long as there are children, puff will be also… I added verse to the song.

    I’m interested in your feedback if you might be interested in giving it. If not, thank you for such a wonderful song. This world is a better place because of your poem.

    many thanks,

    canuck_teacher@yahoo.ca

  7. Jenny Robin Jungwirth Says:

    Dear Lenny,
    The story of Puff is so wonderful and nostalgic. It was so interesting to read about its beginnings, but I do have one question. Why did you choose the name Jackie Paper? Is there a deeper connection to that name or was it simply a name out of a hat?

    Thank You,
    Jenny

  8. Christopher Amos Says:

    Dear Mr. Lipton,
    Many years ago I was fortunate to attend an intimate solo concert by Peter Yarrow. He spoke highly of you and explained thoroughly real meaning of Puff, The Magic Dragon – How wonderful and magic a child’s imagination is and how sad it is when we let our imagination go away as we get older.

    When my daughter was small, I played and sang the song many times to her when she went to bed. It was her #1 request. When she got older, she understood the meaning of the song and one evening after I played the it she cryed and said “That’s a sad song, Daddy.” I cried too and said, “Yes, you are right.”

  9. aronca7 Says:

    Dear Lenny,

    Creating modern 3D cinematography is brilliant and world changing. And you have an impressive resume.

    But I want thank you for writing the original poem that Peter Yarrow would later turn to the classic song that millions of children and some child-like adults like myself, have grown to love and take comfort in knowing that Puff is still waiting for Jackie Paper to return.

    My for year old son has recently been introduced to the song and loves to sing it (over and over). Like myself he is sad that Jackie never comes to ‘play’ anymore and Puff sadly ‘sleeps’ alot in his dark dragon cave.

    I understand that a verse from the original poem, wherein
    Puff finds another child to play with, was not included in the final song. Any chance or desire on your part to remember that ‘lost’ verse or write a new one?

    I sing this song (with guitar) and other original nursery ryhmes to my son and he loves Puff the most.

    I am an Engineer/Architect and work in the Aerospace industry, have composed several dozen songs/instrumentals and have released
    one instrumental CD album performed on classical cuitar entitled The Waltz of the Planets (amazon).

    Best regards, Aaron

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