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Present Tense!
January 27, 2012 11:51 PM   Subscribe

First recorded 50 years ago, Peter Paul and Mary's Puff the Magic Dragon has a rather sad ending: Puff 'sadly slips into his cave' while little Jackie Paper grows up and puts his childhood behind him. But in 2007, Peter Yarrow published a book, Puff, the Magic Dragon, in which the classic song remains the same, but whose illustrations give us a new glimpse into Puff's future. Here is Mr. Yarrow, performing the song with his daughter Bethany at Woodstock's Bearsville Theatre, in '07.

Alternate version of the video. (The Google Books preview of Puff has only a couple of pages available.)

Wikipedia. The song was based on a poem written by Lenny Lipton in 1959, and then adapted to music by Peter Yarrow. When Yarrow joined Peter, Paul and Mary in 1961, the group played the song at appearances for a year, and then recorded for their first album in 1962.

Peter Yarrow:
Over the years hundreds of people have submitted a last verse to me [about Puff playing with another child]. I was keenly aware of that idea."

One of the main points of the song is that you have to put aside childish things to take your place in the world. You have to live with differences and do your part to do good works and it's a sad time to leave those childish things behind . . . but you can also carry your dragon into your adult years, because that dragon becomes your hopes, your refusal to be cynical. That is your new dragon.

It's about taking that sweetness of your life and not just saying "Okay, I'm off the hook and someone else is going to go off and play with Puff." Your job is to recreate your belief in Puff as an adult. It's up to you to find your Puff the Magic Dragon in the world.

It was an important gesture to have the ending include Jackie Paper's daughter, because I'm giving my world over to my daughter, I'm saying "It's yours now, sweetheart, carry it on." That's what I'm doing with the record and the book.”

A fan's possible alternate final verse, from this thread at the mudcat cafe:
"Many summers later as Puff walked along the strand
He looked down and saw some small footprints in the sand.
A voice said, "Mr. Dragon, please don't be so sad.
My name is Jenny Paper and I was sent here by my dad."



A number of recordings of Peter, Paul and Mary (and Peter Yarrow) singing Puff are available on YouTube:

1966, Tonight in Person
Early 1980's: (terrible video quality) Includes an amusing Yarrow monologue before the song debunking a Newsweek story that said Puff was all about drugs. (See Snopes for more.)
1980's, Yarrow explains at the beginning that PP&M learned to play the song early in their program, because otherwise the children in the audience would fall asleep before getting to hear it.
1988, Live in Concert, PBS
1988, Yarrow, Live at Telluride Opera House
1990, Live in Japan
2001, Peter Yarrow with The Klezmatics at the New Synagogue Berlin (Has a jazz feel.)
2007, Benefit Concert for Operation Respect (Also on DailyMotion)
2010, Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow appearing at a Barnes and Noble. (Shaky video taken by someone in the audience. Watching the kids indignantly correct them is kinda adorable.)

Lenny Lipton singing Puff. In 2009, he posted an entry entitled "Thank you, Puff the Magic Dragon" to his blog.

In 1978, a Puff the Magic Dragon cartoon was released, with Burgess Meredith voicing Puff and Jackie's last name changed to Draper, for some reason. / IMDB

And finally: previously on MeFi: Mary Travers' obituary thread.
posted by zarq (49 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank you Zarq, I love PP&M.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:14 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


What a conveniently timed post. I was actually just reading up on this same subject as I'm going to a Peter Yarrow concert tomorrow here in San Francisco and have long been trying to figure out if I'm somehow related to Lenny Lipton.
posted by zachlipton at 12:17 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


That was really sweet, and a great performance but... even when I first encountered this story, I always assumed that Puff was perfectly happy frolicking and meeting new kids. Kids come and go, but Puff's going to keep hanging on.
posted by porpoise at 12:24 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let me join the other thank yous. I was the perfect age to make "Puff" one of my first pseudo-grownup records, and it has stayed with me - just as my own Magic Dragon has (okay, I couldn't have a dragon as an imaginary friend because of my asthma, but you know what I mean).
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:27 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


This song and Joan Baez' Donna Donna were my childhood lullabyes... they get me every time. Thanks for this.
posted by mek at 12:32 AM on January 28, 2012


Still the saddest song I know.
Bonny Prince Billy's take is worth a listen.

Also, the land of Hanalei.
posted by philip-random at 12:32 AM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


It breaks my heart to announce to you that the always-introduced-at-concerts 4th voice of Peter Paul and Mary, Richard Kniss, passed away January 25th, 2012. PeterPaulandMary.com
posted by IndigoRain at 12:37 AM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


God, I hate this pitiful craving to give sad things a happy ending. I remember being broken up by that song as a kid and that is the point. It's about how the simple fantasies of childhood not only get left behind but need to be left behind. Is that sad? Of course. But the alternative is far sadder.
posted by Decani at 1:55 AM on January 28, 2012 [18 favorites]


I was in my 20's before a friend of mine explained that "Dragons live forever, but not so little boys" referred to the boy growing up. Before that I had always assumed that it was a story about a Dragon and a kid who died of cancer or something.

It was a much happier song when I assumed Jakie Paper died of leukemia at age 8.

Thinking about it, I still haven't forgiven him for explaining that to me.
posted by Grimgrin at 2:13 AM on January 28, 2012 [15 favorites]


I was born in 1961 so this was a very popular song when I was a kid. I used to sob with misery at it. The other thing that reduced me to tears was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. Yes, we had it tough.
posted by communicator at 2:17 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a tremendously sad song, but everything that Decani said.

Besides, if dragons live forever, there is bound to be another little boy.
posted by maxwelton at 2:24 AM on January 28, 2012


I remember bawling my eyes out to this when I was little*... even now it puts a lump in my throat when I hear it now, especially the line 'dragons' live forever, but not so little boys' - working out the true meaning made it even worse.

*I remember a guy coming on kids telly whose party piece was talking backwards and he sang the song backwards AND it still made me cry
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:09 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very nicely done, thanks!
posted by HuronBob at 3:37 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I always considered Pete's Dragon a strange, thinly veiled ripoff of the concept... I was surprised they didn't use the song in some manner...
posted by HuronBob at 3:44 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


And here I always thought the song was about marijuana!
posted by hyperizer at 4:52 AM on January 28, 2012


I didn't even click on any of the links and I'm in tears. Gawd, I'm a sappy old fart.

It's about how the simple fantasies of childhood not only get left behind but need to be left behind.

No they don't.

Is that sad? Of course. But the alternative is far sadder.

No it isn't.
posted by tommyD at 4:57 AM on January 28, 2012 [11 favorites]


This entire topic is like Instant Catharsis, just hit refresh and grab a box of tissues.
posted by mikelieman at 5:41 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a tot, this made me sad - but nothing like the tear extractor that was "Leaving On A Jet Plane".
posted by stinkycheese at 6:00 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hate it as much now as I did when I was a kid. Hated the fey, effeminate tones of the vocalist, and the fey effeminate sentiment of the song.

The Runaway Train -- now *there* was a kids song.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:08 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


For years, my wife has teased me about crying whenever I hear this song, so I am very reassured to learn that it's not just me.

The same idea is done well in the "Bacon & Hobbes" homage strips that came out last year.
posted by briank at 6:11 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a beautifully written short story I read many years ago in the Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, that I dearly wish I still had. The story was called "Paper," and if I recall correctly it was about a man who has commissioned some sort of excavation in a distant part of the world. We don't find out what he's looking for until the end, when the dig uncovers...the bones of a dragon. I actually burst into tears when I realized the meaning of the title.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 6:13 AM on January 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Thank you briank, now I know it's not just me, either.

It hits me doubly hard, because as a kid, I had a cat named Puff that just slipped away. We knew he was getting older and that we would be facing his demise at some point, but one night he just disappeared an never came back. He was a great cat.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:42 AM on January 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Let me join the other thank yous. I was the perfect age to make "Puff" one of my first pseudo-grownup records, and it has stayed with me - just as my own Magic Dragon has

The first record album that was "mine" was from when I was a year old and it was first released, Peter, Paul and Mommy. I still have the vinyl. It's a great collection of songs that, while ostensibly for children, are just great folk songs. Imagine my delight when it was released on CD in 1990. I have that too.

Pseudo-grownup or not, I still listen to it all the time.

Nice post. Thanks!
posted by hippybear at 8:09 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thank you for this post. I just watched the entire movie again, which I have not seen since I was very young and had almost forgotten about. It was the first movie that ever made little me cry. I also had the Peter, Paul and Mommy record (thank you for the reminder hippybear!) that I played all the time on my Fisher Price record player. This brings back such good memories, thank you.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Puff, meet Toy Story. Toy Story, meet Puff. You two should have a lot to talk about.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:12 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was born in 63 so I heard this a lot. Hated it. I Had no idea what it was about, and actually didn’t learn what it was about until I read this post. It was one of those songs ( which seemed to me happened a lot then) that adults/teachers were always pushing on kids because the adults liked them, lots of folky stuff in school. I learned a strong dislike of folk music, hippies and the 60’s in general, and tended to lean right in my politics as a reaction. It took me until my late 30’s to get over all that and become the pinko radical I am today. I blame saccharine college folk music for my misspent youth. I’m sure Punk wouldn’t have happened if so many kids hadn’t had to listen to that stuff in 60’s and early 70’s.
posted by bongo_x at 10:13 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before I learned what sealing wax is, I used to think the song referred to "ceiling wax" and I couldn't figure out why one would want to wax a ceiling.
posted by Jahaza at 10:27 AM on January 28, 2012 [14 favorites]


this was a very popular song when I was a kid. I used to sob with misery at it.

If you think that was bad, you should hear what Dylan did with it.
posted by Twang at 10:54 AM on January 28, 2012


This song made me cry as a kid too, but I also thought that Puff roaring out his name was hilarious. When my mom got to that part (accompanied by her guitar), I would try to roar "PUFF" and it sounded goofy. It's just not an intimidating word.
posted by Toothless Willy at 12:30 PM on January 28, 2012


Peter Yarrow headlined a small benefit concert I organized back in the late 90s. He is one of the most insufferable people I've ever met. Hippie pompous -- the worst kind.

The concert was held a very nice, intimate setting in the hills outside of Austin. It was a quiet and appreciative crowd. They enjoyed hearing Puff the Magic Dragon sung by Mr. Yarrow himself.

The first time.

After singing a couple other songs, he sang it again and asked the crowd to sing along. They did, though there were quite a few bemused faces in the room.

He spoke for a while (a long while) about, I don't know, things, and then asked the next act, John Gorka, to come out for a song. They proceeded to sing Puff the Magic Dragon, with harmony. John Gorka (who is a very nice fellow, by the way), returned to the wings while Yarrow did some more yammering and sang If I Had a Hammer. For his finale, he sang Puff the Magic Dragon.

I'm not shitting you. We couldn't get him to stop singing Puff the Magic Dragon. He sang it four times during a one-hour set. Looking back on it, I realize that maybe he just didn't have very many songs in his repertoire, or maybe he was high, or unprepared, or something. But I remember that at the time, all I could think about was how fucking proud he was of that song and how he kept demanding pats on the back for it.

He and his high-maintenance wife (who I think was also acting as his 'manager') were two of the most unpleasant people I've ever met.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:49 PM on January 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


It was an important gesture to have the ending include Jackie Paper's daughter, because I'm giving my world over to my daughter, I'm saying "It's yours now, sweetheart, carry it on." That's what I'm doing with the record and the book.”

Reminds me of this touching piece of fan-art.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:55 PM on January 28, 2012


I happy to hear of a way to present this with a happier sort of ending. I had only ever remembered the chorus to this song so I thought it was a happy song. But then they taught it to my son at daycare, and he wanted me to sing along, so I looked up the worse. I've been depressed and refusing to sing anything but the chorus for a week and half now. Thankfully, my son is only 2.5 and seems to have missed that there is something sad in the song.
posted by katers890 at 5:54 PM on January 28, 2012


I can't remember where I read something about some christian camp where the kids were singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon", but it struck me that if there is a hell, you will find that done there.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:15 PM on January 28, 2012


I grew up on "Peter, Paul and Mommy" and other albums and used to wander around singing songs about El Salvador and the Maccabee children and Nelson Mandela without really knowing any of the context. Puff always made me sniffly - totally still does. Worse than Leaving on a Jet Plane, because I "got" that Puff and Jackie were separated forever when I was like, 3, and "the jet plane song" didn't really make sense till the middle of elementary school. (I also thought Cecelia was a really fun song until I was like, 20.)

And thank you, Jahaza, for pointing out it's not "ceiling wax." That had been on the list of unexamined childhood confusions for me for almost thirty years before I read that comment just now.

Did you all know that Peter, Paul and Mary are on Facebook? This blows my mind every single time they post.
posted by SMPA at 6:39 PM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Somehow, somewhere I got the impression that Jackie Paper was on the autistic spectrum.
posted by RuvaBlue at 6:57 PM on January 28, 2012


I still get mad at people whenever they try to tell me the song is about smoking pot. Even though I was born way after this song, it still reminds me of my childhood because my dad would always sing it to me when I was little. That and "Ghost Riders in the Sky".
posted by Deflagro at 9:38 PM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Too bad Peter Yarrow's attempt to molest a 14-year-old girl and subsequent conviction and imprisonment for the same will forever taint his reputation as a sweet cuddly hippie folk singer.
posted by pineapple at 9:28 AM on January 29, 2012


Too bad Peter Yarrow's attempt to molest a 14-year-old girl and subsequent conviction and imprisonment for the same will forever taint his reputation as a sweet cuddly hippie folk singer.

The man has paid his debt to society for his crime, all over 40 years ago. Either you believe that is the end of it, or you get to get to embroidering a large red letter for him to wear for the rest of his life. I find the endless stigmatization of criminals after the end of their sentence one of the more reprehensible things we do in the US. Perhaps you feel differently.
posted by hippybear at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


hippybear, it's really not about me or what I think. I was making a factual observation. I gather from your earlier comment that you have warm feelings regarding Yarrow as an artist and I apologize if the note about his criminal history interrupted those.
posted by pineapple at 9:56 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't have much stock in Yarrow at all either way, other than that one album I grew up with.

You didn't interrupt anything except the idea we hold here in the US that criminals can pay the penalty for their crimes and then (supposedly) go back about their lives. The endless tagging of anyone who has ever done anything worthy of prison time as forever tainted is one of the factors which keeps our penal system from being truly reformatory in nature.
posted by hippybear at 10:03 AM on January 29, 2012


Not so much about Yarrow, per se, but in general, I disagree with your statement; not truly that often is "anyone who has ever done anything worthy of prison time" really considered "forever tainted."

But sex offenders are in fact one of the groups who can't shake the stigma. Yarrow does happen to be in that group. He does happen to be famous for his popular children's song -- the one that is presumably the reason that the child he victimized approached him in the first place.

I made an observation that I thought was germane. You can disagree with me all you like on whether it was in fact germane. But it's a bit of a stretch to convert my remark into a symptom of the failure of the US penal system... because the past crime of a public figure comes up in a discussion about said figure.

If you want to talk about truly tragic failings of the US penal system, try this thread instead.
posted by pineapple at 10:21 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


the one that is presumably the reason that the child he victimized approached him in the first place.

Citation? That's a pretty big presumption to make without any real basis.
posted by hippybear at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2012


(Okay, so you do after all want this to become a big convo about Yarrow's crime?) Plenty of news reports about the incident have stated that the minors went to his hotel to get his autograph after a concert. The young girls approached him as fans because of his music.

If your problem is the specific notion that "Puff the Magic Dragon" was likely the motivating song, then I am happy to withdraw that implication.
posted by pineapple at 12:18 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Okay, so you do after all want this to become a big convo about Yarrow's crime?)

If you didn't want to talk about it, why did you bring it up? As an aside, I did find it dryly amusing that your initial comment was a perfect example of a self-fulfilling observation.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:49 PM on January 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


So it took me around six hours to create this post. And I generally feel that once I've put one together, especially if doing so has required a bit of time and effort, it doesn't belong to me anymore. The community as a whole can receive it as they see fit. If folks don't like the content, I can always post again tomorrow.

I find it hard to do so though, when a post I spent time compiling and fussing over is derailed by deliberate threadshitting or threadjacking. The more it happens the less I enjoy being here, and the less I enjoy posting.

Pineapple, your initial comment was not a "factual observation." It was your opinion, stating how you personally feel about the man's crime. Perhaps virtually everyone (not including myself) who hears PP&M's music, and specifically Peter Yarrow's music, feels the same way. I don't know.

You seem rather eager to have a conversation about Mr. Yarrow's crimes, so I'll bow out of the discussion now, remove the thread from my recent activity and leave y'all to it. This is a good reminder to me that any post's content, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be derailed by someone with an agenda.
posted by zarq at 1:17 PM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


In 4th grade music class, I cried at the end of singing Puff the Magic Dragon. I remember my pretty music teacher, Miss Smith, cocking her head to the side and smiling at me oh so sweetly.

I think, in that moment, I realized for the first time something of the potential in getting a pretty woman to smile at me sweetly.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:21 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


[This would be a good time to get back on topic, and not turn the whole rest of the thread into more attacks and counterattacks among commenters.]
posted by taz at 5:39 AM on January 30, 2012


[This should have gone to MetaTalk a long time ago, and further comments about the derail probably need to go there, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 AM on January 30, 2012


I didn't even click on any of the links and I'm in tears. Gawd, I'm a sappy old fart.


Yup, me too. I had no idea I would be so triggered by this post.
posted by Theta States at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2012


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