Ah, he comes excited. Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I’ve cited my commands ignore.
– The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I had just started research for a new post on my blog, when my three-year-old son stormed into my small home office, returning from a playground adventure, quickly taking seat on my lap, and demanding to be entertained. Well, that wasn’t difficult, since the research’s topic was about one of his favorite songs. I started the video I found on YouTube.com and only two, maybe three seconds after listening to Peter Yarrow’s acoustic guitar, he yelled in excitement: “Puff the magic dragon!”
The next five minutes and fourteen seconds were pure magic to me as I listened to my son singing with Peter, Paul and Mary. It was one of those live performances that fill a child’s heart with uninhibited magic and put tears into every adult’s eyes. I don’t think that neither Leonard Lipton, who wrote the poem in 1959, nor Peter Yarrow, who put the words to music, were aware that the song would not only make it to the top of the charts in 1963, but, even more importantly, would turn into one of the most popular, “traditional” children’s songs.
But this is also where the sorcerer’s apprentice issue starts: “The spirits that I’ve cited my commands ignore.” Peter Yarrow was definitely toying with sorcery when he took the poem and made it into a song. Since that day he battled to tame the spirits.
First, to be politically correct (i.e. gender-neutral), he changed the line “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys” to “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys.”
In the book Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton, with wonderful paintings by Eric Puybaret, the line is even extended to “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and little boys,” and I always stumble here when I sing the book to my son – I am not a perfect singer, but Patrick doesn’t mind, and he can be very persuasive.
Then there was the most troubling issue of Puff’s demise. At this point, let me emphasize that I never interpreted the lyrics to be about Puff’s death, even though many tried to convince me otherwise. After all, Puff is a magic dragon, and “A dragon lives forever.” Nevertheless, “Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.” I suppose, everybody wanted to believe that Puff is still alive, but they needed to hear it from the ultimate source, namely Peter Yarrow.
During most of the live performances I found on YouTube.com he makes it a point that “Puff, the magic Dragon, lives by the sea,” sometimes followed by a “Present Tense!”, and in the above mentioned book, the last picture shows a grown-up Jackie Paper as he watches his daughter’s first encounter with Puff, the magic dragon.
According to history, the original poem did contain a verse that did not make it into the song. In it, Puff found another child and played with him after returning. Neither Yarrow nor Lipton remember the verse in any detail, and the paper it was written on has since been lost.
After the song’s initial success, speculation arose that the song contained hidden references to smoking marijuana. The word “paper” in the name of Puff’s friend, Jackie Paper, was said to be a reference to rolling papers, and the word “dragon” was interpreted as “draggin’,” i.e. inhaling smoke; similarly, the name “Puff” was alleged to be a reference to taking a “puff” on a joint. Peter Yarrow has frequently explained that “Puff” is about the hardships of growing older and has no relationship to taking drugs. He has also said of the song that it “never had any meaning other than the obvious one” and is about the “loss of innocence”.
I never believed the song did bare any other meaning than the one explained by Peter Yarrow, but it also shows how a twisted mind can inflict a loss of innocence to a wonderful song. But it gets worse…
Both tune and elements of the lyrics were adapted in the controversial parody “Barack the Magic Negro,” written and recorded for Rush Limbaugh’s radio program, and later distributed as a Christmas greeting in 2008 by Chip Saltsman, then a candidate for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, to members of that group. Peter Yarrow condemned the act as “shocking and saddening in the extreme,” stating that “taking a children’s song and twisting it in such vulgar, mean-spirited way, is a slur to our entire country and our common agreement to move beyond racism. Puff, himself, if asked, would certainly agree.”
My son Patrick is definitely too young, and will be for many years, to even comprehend these dark, vulgar and mean spirits. Until then and beyond, we will continue singing Peter Yarrow’s and Lenny Lipton’s book.
I, personally, was inspired by the “loss of innocence” hardship when “Painted wings and giants’ rings made way for other toys.” For the good of our children and our children’s children, we should never abandon our painted wings or giants’ rings. They are the symbol of a better world.