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Peter, Paul And Mary
Puff The Magic Dragon
In 1959, Brooklyn native Leonard Lipton was an engineering student at Cornell University. Being a 19-year old freshman at the time, he was a bit homesick in upstate Utica. So, when an invitation for dinner at a friend’s place was extended, Leonard was eager for some home cooking. Since he was early, he stopped at the college library and happened on some poems written by Ogden Nash. One that grabbed him was The Tale Of Custard The Dragon.
Heading down the hill to his friend’s place, he thought about the poem he read and decided he could write a poem about a dragon, too. Still early, he let himself in the apartment and saw a typewriter on the kitchen table. He sat down and typed Puff the magic dragon, lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee…and a future top ten hit was born!
One of the residents of the apartment was another Cornell student by the name of Peter Yarrow, a graduate of New York’s High School of Music and Art who attended Cornell on a physics scholarship. Peter later found the poem in the typewriter and set the words to music as Lipton apparently forgot about it.
Yarrow began singing in public his last year at Cornell as part of an American Folk Literature class. Peter loved the excitement of performing before a live audience and after graduating from Cornell, he met future manager and music impresario, Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival. It was Grossman who floated the idea of a folk group with "an updated version of the Weavers for the baby-boom generation with the crossover appeal of the Kingston Trio." (1)
Yarrow approached Kentucky-born Mary Travers, another folk singer around Greenwich Village, about the possibility of creating a group. Once Mary, who had apprehensions about singing professionally, was comfortable with the compatibility of their harmonies, she suggested that friend, Noel Paul Stookey, another local folk singer, be added to the group.
After months of rehearsal and touring outside of New York City, the group, now christened Peter, Paul and Mary, was ready for the Big Apple. Appearing at the Village’s Bitter End, the group acquired a large following and eventually signed a contract with Warner Brothers Records.
Warner took the trio into the studio and released their first single Lemon Tree in the early part of 1962. Topping at # 35 on the Billboard chart, the song set the tone for the group’s next release, If I Had a Hammer. (2) Eventually winning two Grammy Awards in 1962, Hammer hit the top ten on October 13. (3) Both songs were included on the first LP, Peter, Paul and Mary, as it remained in the Top Ten for ten months, in the Top Twenty for two years and sold more than two million copies. (1)
Peter Yarrow, Mary Travers and Paul Stookey.
No photo credit found.
After two lukewarm singles from their second album, (Moving), Warner released Puff The Magic Dragon as a single on March 16, 1963. (2) After nine weeks, the song peaked at # 2, behind I Will Follow Him by Little Peggy March. (3)
However, the song was not without controversy. The song title and lyrics were considered as code words for marijuana use. “Puff” was alleged to refer to taking a “puff” on a joint; “dragon” was slang for “draggin’” or inhaling the smoke and even Puff’s friend, Jackie Paper was not immune to the speculation as many believed his name was a reference to the papers the drug was rolled.
“If people want to think it’s about pot, that’s fine with me. Puff The Magic Dragon is not about drugs,” declared Lipton in a video found on YouTube. (4) Over the years, Peter has stated the song is about the hardships of growing older, the loss of innocence in children and never had any meaning other than the obvious one. (5) Still, the song was banned in Singapore in 1963.
Years after Leonard Lipton had written and forgotten about the poem, a friend of his contacted him to tell him that Peter was looking for him. Since Peter had found the poem on his typewriter and had written the song based on Leonard's poem, Peter offered to give Leonard half of the song writing credits after it had already become a hit. This was pretty significant at the time, as Leonard was working as a camp counselor when Peter tracked him down.
And, to this day, Leonard is still receiving royalties from the song. Not that he needs them. The physics major from Cornell went on to produce 25 films, and has a slew of patents to his name, including one for a technique for shooting 3D movies. (6)
Leonard Lipton in 2015
Photo by Jonah Lipton
Peter, Paul and Mary, as a trio or performing solo, placed 23 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Besides If I Had A Hammer and Puff The Magic Dragon, four more songs hit the top ten, Blowin’ In The Wind and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right in 1963, I Dig Rock And Roll Music in 1967 and their only number one hit, Leaving On A Jet Plane in 1969. (2)
Lenny Lipton discussed the issue about whether Puff was a children’s song or a drug song in this video posted in 2016.
1) Wikipedia, Peter Yarrow, Link
2) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, Page 544
3) Joel Whitburn, Hot 100 Charts, The Sixties
4) Michelle Debczak, April 26, 2016, Mental Floss, Listen To The Real Story Behind "Puff The Magic Dragon" Link
5) Wikipedia, Puff The Magic Dragon, Link
6) Kaili Benson, Spinditty, The Story Behind The Song: Puff The Magic Dragon, Link
1969 appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Courtesy of Getty Images.
© 2017 Jerry Reuss