Was Puff the Magic Dragon About Drugs?

“Puff, the Magic Dragon lived by the sea. And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Hanalei”

Almost from the time it reached number two in the Billboard Top 100 over fifty years ago, the classic Peter, Paul & Mary tune has been dogged with accusations that the song was an homage to marijuana. Dragon Zoo revisits the lyrics and asks, did it set the tone of the drug culture of the 1960s, was it just a song about dragons, or was it something else entirely?

Why not click play on the video below to listen to the lyrics as you read our investigation?

To see where the link between the song and drugs started, you have to look no further than the opening verse. In the opening line we’re told that Puff lived in a land called Hanalei. Of all the places in the world that could have fit into the line, Peter Yarrow, who wrote the song, happened to choose a Hawaiian town famous for its marijuana trade.

Was Puff the Magic Dragon About Drugs

Then there is the heroine of the piece, Jackie Paper who we’re told “loves that rascal, Puff”. Many have inevitably interpreted this as being a reference to rolling papers. As for the dragon itself; well, how else do you smoke marijuana except to ‘drag in’?

These references alone in the opening verse were enough for Newsweek to include the song in a 1964 article about hidden drugs references in songs. Later the song goes on to say that the “dragon lives forever, but not so for girls and boys”, a line that’s said to be warning kids away from drugs.

Yet Yarrow has always insisted that the song is instead a lament to lost childhood, which is why towards the end of the song, Puff is seen withdrawing into a cave.

In fact, the lyrics were based on a poem written by Yarrow’s friend Lenny Lipton who now receives half of the royalties generated by the hit.

So why a dragon? Lipton was inspired to write the original poem after reading The Tale of the Custard Dragon by Ogden Nash at his local library. A subtle change of title later, and he had his subject.

Was Puff the Magic Dragon About Drugs

So is the song about drugs? Given that it’s based on a poem that is in itself based on a poem, it seems unlikely that it started that way, but it’s not too much of a stretch of imagination to suggest that Peter Yarrow may have dropped a cheeky couple of references in to gain some notoriety.

Either way, it’s a great song, and the fact that we’re still talking about it over 50 years later means that we’ll probably never get a definitive answer. Let’s leave it to Robert de Niro:

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