The height of the hippie counterculture movement brought plenty of incredible music that promoted peace, love, and tolerance. That music also brought hidden meanings that denoted sexual freedom, the use of recreational drugs, and anti-violent sentiments. Puff, The Magic Dragon, specifically, has always had its true meaning debated among the media despite the author’s vehement explanations. In this article, we’ll dive into the true meaning of Puff, The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Historical Context for “Puff, The Magic Dragon”
Peter, Paul, and Mary were significant figures of the 1960s and 1970s “peace movement” in the United States, alongside other names like Bob Dylan and John Lennon and groups like Crosby, Still, and Nash. It’s not possible to dissect Puff, The Magic Dragon and the speculation surrounding it without first understanding the cultural movement it released during.
We know members of the peace movement today as being “hippies.” Free love, peace, anti-war sentiments, and denouncing violence are all key components of the movement. It was also a time of pushing social boundaries and being more inclusive, including the use of recreational drugs and sexual experimentation.
The movement gained steam mainly with young Americans who were sick of political violence stemming from the Vietnam War and racial inequalities at the time. The whole movement was based loosely on the question, “Why can’t we all get along?” and became a symbol of tolerance regardless of background or orientation.
In the mainstream, hippies were typically looked down on since their ideals, and authority-challenging nature pushed back against traditional values that were held as wholesome and pure. In a way, the hippie cultural movement was a revolution, though one that didn’t involve widespread political violence.
Much of America as a whole during the 60s became exhausted of war, intolerance among citizens, and the social expectations placed on them by authority figures. A big motivator for the cause was the loss of life in the Vietnam War abroad and racial violence at home. The “hippies” asked the question, “what’s the point of needlessly losing life, and better yet, what’s the point of living the way you want me to?”
“Make love, not war” became a common mantra of the movement, but it wasn’t just everyday people that were fed up. Celebrities joined the cause, including numerous musical artists who publicly denounced violence and joined the anti-war causes held by the liberal hippie movement. Songs that promoted peace, social change, freedom, and love became anthems of the counterculture wave.
Puff, The Magic Dragon wasn’t an anthem for liberals of the time. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s If I Had A Hammer filled that role. But, the former song sparked quite a debate over its true meaning, and many still question what exactly it was trying to say today. To understand the confusion, you also have to understand the counterculture movement on, at least, a shallow level and the stigma surrounding its values in traditional America. So, with all that in mind, we can look at what Puff, The Magic Dragon really was about.
What Is The Song About?
Puff, The Magic Dragon was inspired by a poem that was inspired by another poem. Confused? Don’t worry. The song was based on a 1959 poem by Leonard Lipton, though it left out the final stanza of Lipton’s poem. Lipton himself was inspired to write the poem by another poem written by Ogden Nash titled The Tale of Custard the Dragon.
The lyrics of the song tell the story of an ageless dragon named Puff. Puff meets and plays with a little boy named Jackie Paper by the sea in the fictional land of Honah Lee. Eventually, Jackie Paper grows up and moves away, leaving a sad Puff alone. In the left-out stanza of the poem, Puff finds another child to play with.
Lipton was given half the songwriting credit for the song since his poem was almost used word for word, and he received royalties for it until his death.
True Meaning of the Song and Speculations
Now, to get to the controversies and speculation surrounding the song. Lipton and the band have always claimed there is no deeper meaning to the song aside from the loss of a child’s innocence that comes with growing up. They had to make those claims, though, since rampant rumors floated that claimed the song was actually just referencing drug use.
While all authors involved with the song have always claimed drug use was not intended to be a hidden meaning in the song, the case for it is honestly very strong.
To save time, I’ll just make a reference list of all the potential drug references in Puff, The Magic Dragon. Many have made the point that the song seems to be referencing smoking marijuana, which is where most of the references do seem to line up.
- Puff – Taking a puff on a joint.
- Jackie Paper – Paper would describe rolling papers needed to roll joints.
- By The Sea – It was reworded to “by the C,” with the “C” for cannabis.
- Mist – Standing for smoke, but also mist covering everything could reference hotboxing.
- Honalee – Less obvious, but could have stood for “Hashish.”
- Dragon – Referencing “draggin’” on a joint/pipe and inhaling smoke. Also, dragons breathe fire, referencing the burning of the weed.
In all honesty, those references make a lot of sense. But it’s important to look at the time when the song came out. Many on the more conservative side were looking for any excuse to demonize figures of the counterculture movement. While the references add up, they have never acknowledged the rumors as accurate, even after they wouldn’t have caused problems for their careers. In the end, we just have to take the author’s word for it that it’s just about the struggles of growing up and it was never about drug use.
Later Covers And Uses Of The Song
During the 60s, Puff, The Magic Dragon was covered by a ton of different artists. Bing Crosby, Connie Francis, and The Andrews Sisters all recorded their own renditions of the single. In 1976, The Irish Rovers included the song on their Children of the Unicorn album.
Puff made his way to the silver screen in 1978 with the release of a movie titled Puff The Magic Dragon. The dragon was voiced by Burgess Meredith and followed the story of a little boy who had lost his voice. Unable to speak, Puff eventually helped him learn to talk again before leaving to help another child across the sea. The film likely gained traction thanks to Disney’s release of Pete’s Dragon in 1977.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.