This song was rumored to be about drugs, particularly marijuana. This rumor was fueled by a 1964 Newsweek article about hidden drug messages in pop music that came up with the following interpretations:
Puff's friend Jackie Paper = rolling papers
"Puff" = to take a puff from a joint
"Dragon" = a variation of "dragin'," as in taking a drag from a joint to inhale the smoke.
The band claims that the song is really about losing the innocence of childhood, and has nothing to do with drugs. At the end of the song, Puff goes back into his cave, which symbolizes this loss of childhood innocence.
Peter Yarrow wrote this in 1958 before he joined the group. He wrote it after coming home and seeing a poem on his typewriter with words about the dragon. He based his song on this poem, which was written by Lenny Lipton. A few years later when this became a hit, Yarrow found Lipton and gave him half the songwriting credit. Lipton, who was a camp counselor when Yarrow found him, gets extensive royalties from the song.
For his book Behind The Hits
John Javna spoke with Lenny Lipton about his poem. Lipton was feeling homesick when he wrote it. One day, he was on his way to dinner at a friend's house, and was a little early, so he stopped at the library and happened to read some Ogden Nash poems. The title of the poem that grabbed him was The Tale Of Custard The Dragon
, which is about a "Really-o Truly-o Dragon." Lipton was friends with Peter Yarrow's housemate when they were all students at Cornell University. On the walk from Cornell's library to the friend's house (where he was to eat dinner), he wrote the poem, which was about the loss of childhood. But no one was home when he arrived - there was some sort of mix-up about dinner. So he just went in and used Yarrow's typewriter to get the poem out of his head. Then, he forgot about it. Years later, a friend called and told him Yarrow was looking for him, to give him credit for the lyrics. Lipton had actually forgotten about the poem. (Thanks to John Javna for sharing this story.)
The original poem had 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 that was left in Yarrow's typewriter in 1958 has since been lost.
In an effort to be gender-neutral, Peter Yarrow later sang the line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" as "A dragon lives forever, but not so girls and boys."
In 1964, 53 Douglas AC-47 passenger planes were armored and subsequently deployed as gunships by the United States Air Force in the Vietnam War. The planes carried tremendous firepower, shooting bright flares and rounds of machine gun fire on the Viet Cong, which referred to them as "Dragon Ships." This nickname led Americans to start calling the planes "Puff The Magic Dragon," turning the title of the winsome children's song into a moniker for a lethal killing machine.
Some of the alleged drug references in this song include the "autumn mist," which was marijuana smoke, and the "land of Hanah Lee," which was the Hawaiian town of Hanalei, famous for its marijuana plants. Peter Yarrow insists that not only did the song have nothing to do with drugs, but that he didn't even know about pot in 1958, which kills any theories that he put drug references in subconsciously.
This song was banned in Singapore and Hong Kong because authorities thought it contained drug references.
Peter, Paul and Mary formed in 1961, and this song was always part of their repertoire, although they didn't record it until their second album, Moving, was released in early 1963. The first concerts of Peter, Paul, and Mary consisted of a solo set by each of the men, followed by a dozen songs sung as a trio, which is when they performed "Puff."
Paul Stookey put the song on trial during a 1976 show at the Sydney Opera House. He had a "prosecutor" on stage claiming the song was about drugs, with Jackie and Puff explaining that it wasn't. Stookey told the audience that if they sang along, Puff would be acquitted, which they did - the judge declared, "case dismissed."
In order to show the stupidity of calling this a drug song, the band sometimes performs "The Star Spangled Banner
" at concerts and pauses periodically to explain how the previous lines could describe drugs or drug-induced hallucinations.
In the 2000 movie Meet The Parents, the family has a contentious debate over the meaning of this song. In the scene, this song comes on the car radio and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller), says to Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), "Who'd have thought it wasn't about a dragon? Some people thing that to puff the magic dragon means to smoke a marijuana cigarette." Byrnes replies: "Puff is just the name of the boy's magical dragon. You a pothead, Focker?"
When this was played on Bob Keeshan's TV show Captain Kangaroo
, the accompanying illustrations seemed to reflect the missing fourth verse. During the final chorus, the words "BUT WAIT!" appear on the screen, and another child (who looks like a little caveboy) is seen knocking on the door to Puff's cave. The final picture shows Puff and the new little boy embracing.
In 1969, Peter, Paul and Mary released a children's album called Peter, Paul and Mommy
which featured this song.