“Puff the Magic Dragon” is probably one of the best-know folk songs in the world. But is it really, as many people believe, about drugs?
Lenny Lipton’s first year of college wasn’t easy. Not because he was homesick, he was glad to finally be out of Brooklyn, but because he was having a hard time getting used to being on his own. There were so many things to think about: girls, money, a career. Growing up obviously wasn’t going to be easy. Lipton secretly began to miss his childhood.
The fall of 1958 and winter of 1959 passed. So did Lipton, who managed to survive at Cornell in spite of his emotional turmoil. And then one evening in the spring of 1959, a few days after his 19th birthday, Lipton made one of the most important decisions of his life. He decided to go to the library.
He was supposed to have dinner that night with a friend who lived off-campus, but it was still early. So Lipton wandered over the library in the Cornell Student Union. He scanned the shelves until he found a volume of poems of Ogden Nash, then pulled it from the shelves and retired to a chair with it. Lenny was struck by a simple rhyme about the “Really-O Truly-O Dragon.” In fact, he was inspired by it. “If Ogden Nash can write that kind of stuff, so can I,” he thought.
Lipton returned the book, left the library, and headed from his friend’s house. As he walked down the hill that led from Cornell into the town of Ithaca, he thought of Ogden Nash’s dragon. And then he thought of his own dragon. As he approached his friend’s house, Lipton incorporated his dragon into a little poem about a subject that was never far from his mind in those days, the end of childhood.
When Lipton got to 343 State Street, he knocked on the door. No answer. Apparently neither his friend nor his friend’s roommate, Peter Yarrow, was home. But Lipton wanted to get this poem onto paper, so he went inside anyway. He headed straight for a typewriter, which happened to be Yarrow’s, sat down, and began typing as fast as he could. In three minutes, he typed out his poem, then he got up and left. He didn’t bother taking “Puff the Magic Dragon” with him. He didn’t care, he’d gotten it out of his system. He just left it sitting in the typewriter.
Folk music was popular at Cornell in the late ‘50s, and Peter Yarrow was a big man in the folk scene. Although he was still an undergraduate, he taught a class on folk music, performed, and often organized concerts. As Lipton tells it, Yarrow returned home that night, found the poem sitting in his typewriter, and wrote a melody for it. Eventually Yarrow became part of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and they included the song about “Puff” in their act.
Years went by, and Lipton forgot all about his three-minute poem, until a friend from Cornell happened to mention that he’d seen Peter Yarrow perform “Puff” with his new group. Yarrow had told him that Lipton had written it. Was it true?
Suddenly, Lipton’s little poem came back to him.
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, one inevitably runs into stories about unscrupulous operators who’ve stolen songs from their rightful owners. So it’s nice to be able to write about a case in which an honest man went out of his way to find a writer. That’s what happened here. When it began to look as if “Puff” was really going to be worth something. Peter Yarrow tracked Lenny Lipton down to let him know about it. And he’s always listed Lipton as co-writer, even when Lipton didn’t remember having invented the world’s most popular dragon.
For years, people have speculated about the meaning of “Puff,” but Lenny is quite clear about what was on his mind when he wrote it: “Loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world,” he says. “It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.” None of the “suggestive” names were thought out, they just popped into his head as he was walking along that night. “I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying,” he says. “It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids. It think it’s a very sentimental tune.”
“Puff the Magic Dragon” has had remarkable success for a poem that took three minutes to write. As a song, it reached #2 on the national charts in 1963, and in the ‘70s became the basis of a continuing series of children cartoons.