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Wilfried F Voss

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The Sorcerer's Apprentice Who Wrote Puff The Magic Dragon
by Wilfried F Voss   
Rated "PG" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, November 07, 2011
Posted: Monday, November 07, 2011

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Neither Leonard Lipton, who wrote the lyrics in 1959, nor Peter Yates, who composed the music, were aware that the song would not only make it to the top of the charts in 1963.

Ah, he comes excited. Sir, my need is sore.
Spirits that I've cited my commands ignore.

- The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I had just started research for a new post on my blog, when my three-year-old son stormed into my small office, returning from a playground adventure, taking seat on my lap, and demanding to be entertained. Well, that wasn't difficult, since the research's topic was about one of his favorite songs. I started the video I found on YouTube.com and only two, maybe three seconds after listening to Peter Yarrow's acoustic guitar, he yelled in excitement: "Puff the magic dragon!"

The next five minutes and fourteen seconds were pure magic to me as I listened to my son singing with Peter, Paul and Mary. It was one of those live performances that fill a child's heart with uninhibited magic and put tears into every adult's eyes. I don't think that neither Leonard Lipton, who wrote the poem in 1959, nor Peter Yarrow, who (I believe) composed the music, were aware that the song would not only make it to the top of the charts in 1963, but, more importantly, would turn into one of the most popular, "traditional" children's songs.

But this is also where the sorcerer's apprentice issue starts: "The spirits that I've cited my commands ignore." Peter Yarrow was definitely toying with sorcery when he took the poem and made it into a song. Since that day he battled to tame the spirits. First, to be politically correct (i.e. gender-neutral), he changed the line "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" into "A dragon lives forever, but not so girls and boys."

In the book Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton, with wonderful paintings by Eric Puybaret, the line is even extended to "A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and little boys," and I always stumble here when I sing the book to my son - I am not a perfect singer, but Patrick can be very persuasive.

Then there was the most troubling issue of Puff's demise. At this point let me emphasize that, contrary to popular believe, I never interpreted the lyrics to be about Puff's death. After all, Puff is a magic dragon, and "A dragon lives forever." Nevertheless, "Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar." I believe, everybody wanted to believe that Puff is still alive, but they needed to hear it from the ultimate source, namely Peter Yarrow.

During most of the live performances I found on YouTube.com he makes it a point that "Puff, the magic Dragon,lives by the sea," sometimes followed by a "Present Tense!" (see video below.), and in the above mentioned book, the last picture shows a grown-up Jackie Paper as he watches his daughter's first encounter with Puff, the magic dragon.

The original poem also had a verse that did not make it into the song. In it, Puff found another child and played with him after returning. Neither Yarrow nor Lipton remember the verse in any detail, and the paper it was written on has since been lost.

After the song's initial success, speculation arose that the song contained hidden references to smoking marijuana. The word "paper" in the name of Puff's friend, Jackie Paper, was said to be a reference to rolling papers, and the word "dragon" was interpreted as "draggin'," i.e. inhaling smoke; similarly, the name "Puff" was alleged to be a reference to taking a "puff" on a joint. Peter Yarrow has frequently explained that "Puff" is about the hardships of growing older and has no relationship to drug-taking. He has also said of the song that it "never had any meaning other than the obvious one" and is about the "loss of innocence".

I never believed the song did bare any other meaning than the one explained by Peter Yarrow, but it also shows how a twisted mind can inflict a loss of innocence to a wonderful song. But it gets worse...

Both tune and elements of the lyrics were adapted in the controversial parody "Barack the Magic Negro", written and recorded for Rush Limbaugh's radio program, and later distributed as a Christmas greeting in 2008 by Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, to members of that group. Peter Yarrow condemned the act as "shocking and saddening in the extreme," stating that "taking a children's song and twisting it in such vulgar, mean-spirited way, is a slur to our entire country and our common agreement to move beyond racism. . . . Puff, himself, if asked, would certainly agree."

My son Patrick is definitely too young, and will be for many years, to even comprehend these dark, vulgar and mean spirits. Until then and beyond we will continue singing the book.

Puff The Magic Dragon

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal puff
And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff.

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail
Jackie kept a lookout perched on puff’s gigantic tail

Noble kings and princes would bow whene’er they came
Pirate ships would lower their flag when puff roared out his name.

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

A dragon lives forever but not so little girls and boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys

One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane

Without his life-long friend, puff could not be brave
So puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee

Web Site: The Sorcerer's Apprentice Who Wrote "Puff The Magic Dragon"



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