Your challenge in reading this story is keeping the mega-hit from getting stuck in your head. As earworms go, this one makes every Dark Lord smile. So, proceed with caution.
Many will say “Puff, The Magic Dragon” is absolutely about smoking pot, unless you’re a child or are listening to it with a child or were deeply affected by it when you were a child and, à la Peter Pan, have “failed to launch.”
The 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary song’s purported connection to cannabis is well known, but here is the obligatory disclaimer: Everyone involved with making the song says it is absolutely not about smoking weed. Which, as we’ll see, makes no difference to listeners. And so, we’ve hit upon a mystery at the core of the story of how Puff became about puffin’..
Preliminaries out of the way, let’s go down the rabbit hole:
Rumor (and the online writers’ habit of copying “facts” from one internet story into another without verifying the statement) has it that in either 1964 or 1965 a prolific New York-based columnist wrote in Newsweek that “Puff the Magic Dragon” was about smoking weed. The writer of the piece was said to be Dorothy Kilgallen, whose syndicated gossip column covered celebrities, the murder of JFK and all points in between. Kilgallen also had a radio show and was frequently on the popular TV show “What’s My Line,” so she was well-known.
“The first thing I thought when confronted with her newspaper column was disbelief – how could that nice lady say such a thing?” wrote Lenny Lipton in a 2009 blog post on his own website. Lipton wrote the essential story of “Puff” as a poem that was then turned into the song by Peter Yarrow.
Lipton explained that he didn’t know anything about marijuana when he wrote the story. “We’re talking about Cornell in 1958. People were going to hootenannies — they weren’t smoking joints.”
Lipton places the Kilgallen piece as coming out soon after the song was first performed in 1962. “Puff” was officially released in 1963.
In 1965, Kilgallen was found dead in her New York apartment under suspicious circumstances. Officially, Kilgallen’s death was blamed on a cocktail of alcohol and barbiturates. Rumors that she was murdered because she knew too much about who or what organization killed JFK are still rampant.
To get to the point here, we couldn’t find the rumored story published anywhere at any time in the 1960s, and neither could two university research librarians nor one expert researcher who works with academics on book projects. GreenState left messages where Lipton or an associate should see them, but we have not heard back.
What we did find was an article published at the top of the front page of the Sept. 29, 1967 edition of the San Francisco Examiner titled “What New Songs REALLY Mean” [emphasis in original].
The lead paragraphs say, “To the uninitiated adult, ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ is a delightful kiddies song. In reality, it is a tribute to marijuana.”
That’s all the writer, Phyllis Battelle, says about “Puff.” She does not credit that statement to any person or source.
In spite of the initial tone of moral panic, Battelle writes a pretty good story capturing the fear of adults at the rejection of social norms by their kids. She writes, “Through their music, they are telling the squares what is happening and if the squares are too naive to tune in to really listen and comprehend, it’s their bad luck.”
Harvard’s Maria Tatar, a research professor of Germanic languages and literatures and of folklore and mythology, told Greenstate, “Having lived through that time, everyone connected the song with marijuana, but I would have remembered if Dorothy Kilgallen had written an article about it.”
Tatar explained that she followed Kilgallen’s career partly because there were so few professional women at that level of writerly fame and respect in the early 1960s.
Nevertheless, Tatar said no one would have to have seen the article to make the association. It was in the air, so to speak. The counter-culture zeitgeist of the era absorbed almost any oblique or metaphorical statement as really being about something other than what it was purported to be about.
In “Puff,” the character Jackie Paper is associated by many with rolling papers, “mist” is associated with smoke, and the land of “honahlee” is thought to be either hashish or a bay and town in Hawaii called Hanalei, which is apparently well known for quality cannabis.
But more than those admittedly simplistic associations, Tatar said, the story of Puff and the little boy who grows up to abandon him and the magical land is a sort of moody story about disenchantment, which was also a major theme throughout the ’60s. Young people suddenly understood they were being lied to about nearly everything from what the government was doing to hypocrites declaring what was morally acceptable to think and do.
Many stories and songs that dropped into the swirling cultural waters of the time became about something else: drugs or sex or love. And like a drug trip or love itself, they are “portal” songs — songs that open doors to what was, in their minds, really going on.
“They can all be related to drugs,” Tatar said. “Think of the hero’s journey. Our stories are all about journeys and trips and seeing wondrous things, journeys that take you to another universe that is magical.”
Tatar adds that the music of the ’60s, blaring from turntables and car radios (our ubiquitous headphones were few and far between … and terrible quality to boot), created a multi-generational connection to the songs of that era. Everyone heard this music, knew the songs, and talked about them, and older adults fretted over what the heck those dang kids were getting up to because of them. You know — sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
“Once you create something, you send it out into the world,” Tatar said, “and the world does things with it. They misread the author’s intentions, but it doesn’t matter anymore… We’re always interpreting things in new ways. I have the feeling that kids and their parents listening to it today would probably associate it more to Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ because it can be about finding those monsters that turn out to be actually quite gentle and tame but you have to leave them as well.
“So, our associations change over time. And, yes, it was inflected in a certain way and in a culture that was deeply into not just taking drugs but talking about drugs. There was a lot of anxiety about them. The older generation was deeply anxious about what was going to happen to this pleasure-seeking generation.”
That the words of a song become associated with the zeitgeist of the era in which it flourishes, then, is no surprise. For this story, the retroactive assigning of blame for the association of “Puff”, the Magic Dragon with cannabis to Dorothy Kilgallen doesn’t really have any explanatory power. It doesn’t matter who said what about ol’ Puff.
And, today, with cannabis legal on some level for most Americans, the association makes for a quaint yawn. “Wait, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge song about smoking cannabis? The horror! Turn up that old song, ‘Hits from the Bong.’” But it does give us a view — a portal — into the minds of the generation that told itself the subversion version of the song’s meaning.
Editor’s Note: Lenny Lipton died on October 5th, 2022, less than a week after the publication of this article.
Jake Ellison has been an award-winning journalist for 30 years in the Pacific Northwest (primarily at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) covering science, higher education and cannabis legalization.