The Tale Behind the Meaning of “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In 1962, one of the most endearing children’s folk songs was written. Initially penned as a poem, the story of “Puff the Magic Dragon” was of a friendly flying serpent who lived by the sea in a land far away—Honah Lee—and enjoyed frolicking in the autumn mist.

Recorded and released by folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, “Puff The Magic Dragon” became an instant hit, relishing in childhood innocence and imagination, and a special imaginary friend.

Ogden Nash’s Dragon Poem

In 1959, 19-year-old Leonard Lipton, then studying at Cornell University in New York, wrote a poem, inspired by a 1936 poem by American poet Ogden Nash (1902-1971), “The Tale of Custard The Dragon.” Though poetry wasn’t his forte, the physics major was convinced he could write a better “dragon” poem than Nash’s and began typing his new story up on roommate Peter Yarrow’s typewriter. 

Yarrow found the poem and wrote “Puff the Magic Dragon” based on Lipton’s poem.

Peter, Paul and Mary

By the time Yarrow formed Peter, Paul and Mary with Paul Stookey and Mary Travers (1936-2009), he already had the song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Pulled from Lipton’s original poem, Yarro renamed the dragon “Puff” and gave his former roommate writing credit when the song was later released by the group in 1963. 

Third Time = The Charm

At first, “Puff the Magic Dragon” wasn’t the lead single off Peter, Paul and Mary’s second album, Moving. The group first released a song called “Big Boat,” then “Settle Down” before giving “Puff” a shot.

Already gaining some attention with their 1962 self-titled debut and hitting the charts with songs “Lemon Tree” and “If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul and Mary always included “Puff” in their live set since forming in 1961, before releasing it. Upon its release, the song instantly reached the Easy Listening and R&B charts and peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart.

“Puff’s popularity is a phenomenon that I don’t comprehend because Puff has not been promoted like Mickey Mouse,” said Lipton in 2009, 50 years after he first wrote the song. “‘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.”

Movies, Music and Books

Throughout the 1960s, “Puff the Magic Dragon” was covered by everyone from Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters Jackie De Shannon, and Connie Francis. In 1976, The Irish Rovers took on the song for the Children of the Unicorn album.

In 1978, Puff the Magic Dragon became a movie with Puff voiced by screen legend Burgess Meredith, and the story of a little boy who couldn’t speak for a long time until a magical dragon helped him find his voice.

In 2007, Scholastic released the first “Puff the Magic Dragon” children’s book with illustration by French artist Eric Puybaret using the lyrics of the Yarrow- and Lipton-penned song as the story.

Who is “Puff” Anyway?

“I think Puff, the Magic Dragon is about a little boy and a dragon,” said Lipton of the meaning of the song. “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 Honah Lee, you’ve got Neverland and 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.

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 flags when Puff roared out his name

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

“Puff” Was Never About Smoking Weed

Through the marijuana-induced haze of the ’60s, an urban legend arose soon after the release of the song, speculating that the true meaning of “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a euphemism for smoking weed with the character “Jackie Paper” linked to rolling papers. Lipton vehemently denied that the song was about drugs, because “Puff” was more innocent than that. It centered around childhood innocence, and not getting high.

When he wrote “Puff” at Cornell, Lipton says students were more interested in going to “hootenannies” than smoking joints. “It was Pete Seeger and ‘Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,’” said Lipton, “not ‘One Toke Over the Line Sweet Jesus.’”  

In a 2015 interview, Lipton added, “A song for little kids that advocates the use of drugs would not be appropriate. Advocating marijuana for little kids is not a good thing.”

The “Puff” That Keeps on Giving

Lipton went on to produce 25 films and create a number of patents under his name, including his invention of the “stereoscopic technique” of filming movies in REAL 3D, which was used in the 1980s. The artist also won various awards, including one from the Smithsonian Institution for his invention of CrystalEyes, the first shuttering eyewear for stereoscopic displays, in 1996.

To this day, Lipton still receives royalties from his famous dragon.

“Puff was my financier,” shared Lipton. “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 asks 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.”

Lipton added, “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, Honah Lee. I’m heading your way.”

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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