• News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment

Puff, the Scary Magic Dragon

Bill Radke

Full Episode Audio
Larger view
"Puff, the Magic Dragon"
Enlarge This Image
Lenny Lipton Sings
(Bil Radke)

I was driving home listening to a children's music CD that a friend had given me, when I heard:

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee

You remember the tune, it starts out very happy. In fact, I've been polling my friends and almost everyone remembers this as a cute little kiddy song. But as I kept listening, my car turned into my parents' living room circa 1972. I could see the wooden cabinet stereo with the record spinning inside.

See, I was a troubled little kid, and I lived in my imagination. This song lured me in to Honah Lee and then, it crushed me. Little Jackie Paper abandons his best friend. And Puff collapses.

Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave. Oh.

So I'm driving down the Hollywood Freeway, not "misty-eyed," but with actual tears running down my face. And I realize I'm not crying for Puff; I'm crying for a little boy who I couldn't protect...who didn't know any better than to die a little inside, as he found out that even your imagination is painful.

So as I drove, I made two resolutions. One, I'm going to protect my daughter from ever hearing the most heartless children's song in history. And two, I'm going to find the son-of-a-bitch who wrote it and make sure he knows what he did to me.

Well, what do you know? It turns out the son-of-a-bitch lives a few miles from me in Los Angeles ... and he's a really nice guy. His name is Lenny Lipton and he invited me to his home and showed me his original poem from 1959 and the handwritten edits made by his friend Peter Yarrow, who later made the song a hit with Peter Paul and Mary.

"Oh we found it, okay here it is. This was lost for years and Yarrow found it, so very few people have ever seen this. So here you can see the typed script, that's mine; I typed this in the typewriter," said Lipton.

"See a��Green scales fell like rain,' that was from the original. I wrote that! I never liked a��Green scales fell like rain' and I blamed it on Yarrow, but I can see I wrote it, " he said with a chuckle.

Lenny told me the whole story. He was a freshman at Cornell University when one day he read an Ogden Nash poem called "The Custard Dragon," and decided to write a dragon poem himself.

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know," he answered, "It was the inspiration."

By the way, you may have heard that Puff is a lightly coded reference to marijuana. Lenny says that's not what it was about.

"I think it's what I was feeling. I think what I was feeling was that my childhood had ended and this was sort of a metaphor for that. I think the song is about creativity, about the creativity of youth. And how when people grow up, it goes away," he said.

Now, I could relate to all of this. Kids do grow up and they leave behind their imaginary friends and it's sad. But ... where was the redemption? Why did Puff fall apart? Why is this song so hopeless?

And this is when Lenny showed me the last line of his poem, which Yarrow had crossed out. It reads "Puff the Magic Dragon slipped into his cave..."

"... and waited the eventual coming of little Tommy Knave," he recited, " So Tommy Knave has been assigned to oblivion and obscurity, but Jackie Paper lives on."

He's laughing about it; I couldn't believe what I was hearing. You mean... it's not over? Puff finds a new friend?

"Why did you let Peter Yarrow, Peter Paul and Mary record the song without your hopeful ending?" I asked.

"They didn't do anything to hurt the spirit of the song. Because the song stops doesn't means the story stops," Lipton said.

"I'm thinking about this because I'm a new father, a first time father. And, as of right now, I would protect her from that song, Lenny," I said.

Lipton reasoned with me, "Oh, I don't know if you would do that, think about it. It'd make her life a little bit better not worse."

"Why do you think it would make..."

"Cause all literature and art is important. It helps you make sense out of your life. Crying about Puff the Magic Dragon is practice for the loss of your first love or your parents dying," he said.

"I also don't sing to my child about her cradle falling out of the tree," I said.

"I think you may be creating a Buddha. Buddha's father tried to keep him from all misery. So if you keep doing that, one day your kid is going to discover that there is mortality and sorrow, and that may be quite a shock," he said.

"Everybody who goes through that may not become a Buddha. They may become crazy!" he laughed.

Well, I thought about it, the man does make sense. I don't want Susanna to get sucker-punched by the fist of life. But on the other hand, I also don't want to land the first blow with this song. And I know I shouldn't run her life according to my childhood sorrow... but then, isn't she supposed to benefit from my experience?

Well, I guess it's OK to be undecided for a while... she is only 10 months old.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Michael Shepard

    From San Diego, CA, 09/28/2009

    Michael Holland Shepard wrote the song Puff The Magic Dragon at 12 year old. The song was pirated by Peter, Paul and Mary. Michael also drew the picture of the dragon which is on the second LP and includes his name in the title. Elvis Presley and also The Limeliters recorded the song first. There is no official release scheduled until Michael Holland Shepard is fully credited as songwriter, lyrics and melody. And paid full royalties. All theft and violence stoped. Other songs writen by Michael are, Michael Row The Boad Ashore, Tiny Bubbles, Little Boxes, Little Old Lady From Pasadina, Jeramiah Was A Bullfrog, Bye Bye Miss American Pie, A Train They Call The City(Of New Orleans?), Imagine, Obla Dee Obla Daa, Horse With No Name, Hotel California? etc... etc... etc...

    By Shannon gibson


    I am 18 and i remember watching Puff when i was little and i think i cryed, and it was sooo sad, but i really didn't know why it was sad then. I came across it agian cause i am learning to play piano and read the words and saw how sad it is, no wonder i cryed.I don't think young kids should hear it they won't understand it. Let them read it when they are older. However,Flight of the Concords did parody is really funny, Albi the Rasict Dragon. look it up

    By David Vazquez

    From New York, NY, 08/21/2008

    I recall the tv special when I first saw the new Puff children's book. Though I've no children, something complelled me to pick up a copy. I found the song to be very honest about dealing with growing up into adulthood in perhaps the most gentle way that can be handled by a child (at least as I see it). Puff teaches the lesson that even a dragon who lives forever can't prevent time from causing the childhood innocence of Jackie Paper, and possibily the world of Honalee to cease -- except of course Jackie remembers Puff and passes on his childhood adventures to others.

    I believe any young child who is introduced to or discovers Puff will relate to him being as a child who, as we all were in one point in our youth, didn't know death.

    By Beverly Boling

    From Houston, TX, 07/09/2008

    I wonder if Bill Radke has seen Peter Yarrow's book of PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON?
    At the end, he says that Jackie Paper has a daughter. That is his way of continuing the story. So, now Puff can play with Jackie's daughter like he used to play with Jackie.

    BTW, back in the 1970's Peter Yarrow did a series of cartoons about Puff, the Magic Dragon. They are truly wonderful.

  • Post a Comment: Please be civil, brief and relevant.

    Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. All comments are moderated. Weekend America reserves the right to edit any comments on this site and to read them on the air if they are extra-interesting. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting.

      Form is no longer active


    You must be 13 or over to submit information to American Public Media. The information entered into this form will not be used to send unsolicited email and will not be sold to a third party. For more information see Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Download Weekend America

Weekend Weather

From the January 31 broadcast

Support American Public Media with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
 ©2015 American Public Media