Peter Yarrow and Puff the Magic Dragon. Babble.com

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.

You talk a lot about your project, Operation Respect, which goes into classrooms and teaches children about peace and tolerance. We’re raising my four-year-old as non-violently as we can, but she and her playmates still end up calling each other “doody-head” until one kid cries or they’re beating each other with sticks. Isn’t a certain amount of that inevitable?

The role modeling of parents themselves comes very early. Kids are not coming to the playground as blank slates. If kids grow up learning non-violent conflict resolution very early, how to acknowledge and respect others, how to honor service to their school and to each other, a different kind of peaceful kid will emerge. We need to give our kids heart tools to treat each other with love and caring. I believe that singing the “Blue Tail Fly,” song together as kids in school or at home is a political act in the most profound sense because it creates community, respect, mutuality. And that is not about selling books; it’s in the blood for me.

The illustrations of Puff in the book are really lovely, but in my mind, Puff will always look the way he did on that fantastic, trippy 1978 TV version. What’s your favorite part of that show?

The whole idea of seeing what is and what might be through Puff was my idea. What might be frightening, like a pirate – you can get away from that vision and walk in the shoes of a pirate. Perhaps you can understand that the pirate at heart is a troubled fellow who always wanted to be a baker.

Another moment that is really wonderful is what compels Jackie to speak at the end: he doesn’t want Puff to go away. [Adopts high-pitched cartoon voice of Jackie] Puff!? Puff!? [Goes back to normal voice.] He speaks for the first time because he doesn’t want to lose his friend, which is really powerful; it’s his love for another creature.

You’ve repeatedly said that Puff has nothing to do with drug use (“Jackie Paper” as rolling paper, etc.). I read somewhere that to prove your point, you have sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” pointing out lines that could be seen to refer to drug use.

[Sarcastically.] For instance: “Oh say can you see,” … now the “see” refers to the C in cocaine. “By the dawn’s early light,” – that’s the time in which junkies are known to shoot up. “Whose broad stripes,” refers to prison uniforms, and “bright stars,” are the shields worn by the narcotics squad. There’s the “perilous fight,” to get it across the border. [Uses stereotypical hippie voice, singing:] Whoa, and the rocket’s red glare, man, the bombs bursting in air! [Goes back to normal voice.] That refers to the psychedelic experience. It proves that Francis Scott Key was not a lush, but a junkie.

I think folk music gets a bad rap in the hipster kiddie music world now. I hear a lot of parents using musicians like Raffi almost like a curse word – why is that?

Because the music business is all about money. It’s not about developing artists and believing in music as an expression of people’s hopes and dreams and desires.

Article Posted 11 years Ago

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