Peter Yarrow and Puff the Magic Dragon.

Peter Yarrow – a third of the trio Peter, Paul and Mary – is a folk music legend. While the group is known for songs like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” and “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” perhaps one of his best known and most beloved songs is the bittersweet tale of a little Jackie Paper who loves his magic dragon but has to grow up when “painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys.” Yarrow wrote “Puff the Magic Dragon,” in 1959 with his friend Lenny Lipton, and the group recorded it several years later. This summer, Yarrow released the first-ever book version of Puff, with lush, often funny drawings. (As Jackie and Puff sail off in their boat, the school of dolphins that follow them are wearing graduation caps.) The book also comes with a music CD on which Yarrow sings with his daughter, Bethany, covering “Puff” as well as folk classics like “Blue Tail Fly.” 

My four-year-old heard the song once and was singing it for hours, so it obviously still has the same attraction it did when my parents wore down their vinyl version so many years ago. Babble talked to Yarrow about the 1978 TV-movie version of the song, the rumors about drug use and how to find your “new dragon.” – Jennifer V. Hughes

Almost everyone that I talked to about doing this interview had some really profound memories about Puff. Why do you think that is ?

It’s the combination of music and the words . . . what people seem to get from this song is a very clear sense of my intentions and my feelings and my emotions – that indeed, this is a very sad thing that happens. But is also a part of life and it is important for us to recognize and engage in life and death through this kind of music.

The picture book closes in a much more upbeat way with a little girl looking lovingly at Puff and an older guy peeking around the corner – that’s Jackie Paper as a Daddy, right? Why did you decide to do that?

Over the years hundreds of people have submitted a last verse to me [about Puff playing with another child]. I was keenly aware of that idea.

One of the main points of the song is that you have to put aside childish things to take your place in the world. You have to live with differences and do your part to do good works and it’s a sad time to leave those childish things behind . . . but you can also carry your dragon into your adult years, because that dragon becomes your hopes, your refusal to be cynical. That is your new dragon.

It’s about taking that sweetness of your life and not just saying “Okay, I’m off the hook and someone else is going to go off and play with Puff.” Your job is to recreate your belief in Puff as an adult. It’s up to you to find your Puff the Magic Dragon in the world.

It was an important gesture to have the ending include Jackie Paper’s daughter, because I’m giving my world over to my daughter, I’m saying “It’s yours now, sweetheart, carry it on.” That’s what I’m doing with the record and the book.