Monday, December 8, 2008

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul & Mary

A couple weeks ago I was driving my with one of my fiends, Allie. My iPod was plugged into my car stereo and was playing a random selection of songs. The guitar introduction of “Puff the Magic Dragon” started and Allie immediately asked me to change the song. “Why? This song is awesome, I know it’s a kid’s song but it’s great,” I replied and then she explained, “I can’t listen to this song, every time I hear it, I cry.” I didn’t understand why at the time, but after some reflection, I think I know why.

Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton composed “Puff the Magic Dragon” in 1963 and was made popular by Yarrow’s singing group Peter, Paul & Mary. This group was part of the folk music revival movement of the 1960s which including Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. This movement carried on American folk traditions and featured songs with acoustic backgrounds, simple melodies and an emphasis on lyrics. “Puff the Magic Dragon” follows this tradition featuring two acoustic guitars. It also features a melody that utilizes a small range of notes that is repetitive and easy to sing along with which is an important feature in social nature of folk music.

The lyrics tell the story of an immortal dragon named Puff and his friend, Jackie Paper. They play together in a land called Honalee. Jackie grows up and looses interest in playing with Puff leaving Puff alone and depressed. I’ve known this song all my life and as a child this song was fun to sing with an imaginative story. The wonder of having dragon to play with and the Peter Pan-like adventures captured my imagination as a child. The part about growing up didn’t mean much but now as adult I understand the hardships of growing up described in this song.

Is it inventible that when we grow up we lose the wonder and imagination of being a child and like Jackie Paper does? The transition to adulthood is hard. The fun of school transforms into work, weekends, which once were mini-vacations, are now opportunities to run errands and the hopes and dreams in our hearts become weighed down by the practicality of life. As an adult, there are freedoms that children dream of but they come with the price of responsibility that sometimes makes theses freedoms seem not worth the trouble.

Probably the saddest realization in this song is the Puff is dead because we grew up. The first line of the song is “Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea.” He “lived” by the sea and even though the song explains that dragons live forever, the song reminds up that he is no longer with us. When Puff ceases his fearless roar and goes into his cave, it becomes clear that he only lives forever with Jackie Paper as people who have passed on live in our hearts.

After listening to “Puff the Magic Dragon” if we aren’t feel bothered by the ending, it may be because we accept it’s message as part of life. However, if we feel sad at the end, its because we are mourning what is lost in adulthood and because we don’t accept that losing the wonder of childhood is part of our destiny. Sometimes I look at children and become envious of their innocence and the simplicity of their lives but then I catch myself because I don’t believe that it is inevitable that we lose the wonder of childhood as adults and now neither do Peter, Paul & Mary.

In the 1960s Peter, Paul & Mary may have believed the story they were telling but in recent performances (see the “live performance” link at the top of this article) they have made one small but significant change in “Puff the Magic Dragon.” In the last chorus, Mary calls out “present tense” and they sing “Puff the magic dragon lives by the sea.” Maybe after 30 years of singing this song and seeing the wonder of and joy in children’s faces when they sing this song they realized that Puff is alive in all of us. We don’t lose the wonder of being a child, we just seem to forget about it, and like Puff, it’s waiting there for us whenever we want to go play again as a child.

Allie, I think the reason why this song makes you cry is because the original recording of the song is saying something that you don’t want to believe. Maybe on some level, you feel sad that the rest of the world seems to become pessimistic and disheartened. The thing is that I like that about you. I believe you should admire the people you keep close to you and one of the things I admire about you is your optimistic and sense of wonder that you hold in your heart and the fact that you want others to share in that.

I hope this song brings you tears of joy knowing that Puff is still with us. We write the next verse of this song with the way we live our lives and I have no doubt you will have further adventures with your dragon and that he can’t wait to see you again.

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