Rock Flashback: "Puff the Magic Dragon"

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joint 2 Rock Flashback: "Puff the Magic Dragon"

Perhaps this picture is a little misleading. But if it were of three folksingers from 50 years ago, would you be looking at it right now?(Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

Certain rock myths endure. We like a good conspiracy theory — like the one that would have been necessary if [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Paul McCartney[/lastfm] “blew his mind out in a car” sometime in the ’60s. We like a good debauch — like [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Keith Richards[/lastfm] partying so hard for so long that he had to get his blood replaced. And some rock myths endure because it seems like they should be true. Take the rumors that “Puff the Magic Dragon” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Peter Paul & Mary[/lastfm] is actually about marijuana.

“Puff the Magic Dragon” went to #2 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1963. It’s about the friendship between a dragon named Puff and a boy named Jackie Paper, “who frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.” Everything’s great until Jackie grows up and puts aside childish things, and Puff slips friendless and sad back into his cave. It’s a sweet song, beautifully performed by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Peter Paul & Mary[/lastfm], and it’s no wonder it became an enduring classic.

But as the counterculture began to take hold, kids who had grown up singing “Puff” became interested in puffs of other sorts. And so the myth developed that “Jackie Paper” was a reference to rolling papers, “dragon” actually meant “draggin’,” “autumn mist” meant marijuana smoke, and Honalee is a reference to a Hawaiian village famed for the quality of its dope.

Both songwriters, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Peter Yarrow[/lastfm] and Leonard Lipton, strongly denied any drug connection. Lipton said, “I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959 [where Lipton wrote the words], no one smoked grass.” He also said, “It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.” Yarrow echoed Lipton, saying, “I can assure you that it’s a song about innocence lost.” Yarrow blamed Newsweek for spreading the rumor in a story about drug-related messages hidden in pop songs.

Although I don’t know if any American radio stations pulled the song as a result of the rumors, Yarrow has claimed that it’s not aired in Hong Kong to this day because of its supposed drug references. Yet despite categorical denials from people in a position to know, the myth persists. One example: It was mentioned in the movie Meet the Parents.

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