Peter, Paul & Mary: Is ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ Really About Drugs?

“Puff, the Magic Dragon” remains a popular song for children. It’s also one of the most famous tracks from Peter, Paul and Mary’s career. Its popularity stems from both the song itself and the speculation surrounding it.

The song was released in the 1960s, a time when drug use was common among American youth. Some interpreted the song to be about drugs. Is there any truth to this claim, or is it simply speculation?

Peter, Paul and Mary in front of a brick wall | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The origin of ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’

Peter, Paul and Mary popularized “Puff” but they did not write its lyrics. The lyrics to “Puff” were written by a teenager named Leonard Lipton. Lipton was interested in poetry his whole life. The lyrics of “Puff” were inspired by an Ogden Nash poem called “A Tale of Custard the Dragon.”

“Puff” was initially written as a poem. Then Lipton’s college friend, Peter Yarrow, put music to the words. Yarrow was the “Peter” from Peter, Paul and Mary. Interestingly, Lipton never cared for Peter, Paul and Mary’s music, deeming it rather dull.

Is ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ really about drugs or not?

“Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary

So is the song actually about drugs? Yarrow said it’s not. He has even joked about this interpretation of the song. In addition, Lipton said the song isn’t about drugs. He said it’s a song about growing up and he wouldn’t want to discuss drugs in a children’s song.

Lipton said the track is about the “loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world. It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at [his college] Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass. I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying. It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.” Yarrow also said someone would have to be “meanspirited” to insert drug references into a song for children.

The origin of the rumor and its effects

Dorothy Kilgallen at her typewriter. | Bettmann

So where did the claim “Puff” is about drugs originate? Both Yarrow and Lipton point to a Newsweek article. According to Lipton, the article was written by a newspaper columnist named Dorothy Kilgallen.

According to Kilgallen, “Puff” is about cannabis. Supposedly, the name of the dragon in the story is a reference to smoking marijuana. She wrote the song’s mention of “autumn mist” is allegedly a reference to marijuana smoke. Kilgallen even said the name of the the song’s character Jackie Paper is a reference to the paper used to create joints. Lipton says even if Kilgallen didn’t begin the myth “Puff” is about drugs, someone else would have done so.

Lipton says he is asked almost daily about whether “Puff” is about drugs or not. The association between “Puff” and drug culture has hurt the song in some ways. Yarrow lamented it’s not played in Hong Kong for its alleged drug references. Lipton says the rumor has stopped “Puff’ from being adapted into a film. Regardless, the song still endures as a classic folk song for many fans.

Also see: Beatles: Why Bob Dylan Said ‘Yesterday’ & ‘Michelle’ Are ‘Cop-Outs’