Peter Paul & Mary’s First Contract . . . and Puff

Peter Paul & Mary signed their first recording contract on January 29, 1962.  Thus began a recording career with Warner Brothers that would help bring folk music and Bod Dylan’s music to a broad audience.

That broader audience included me when I was a kid. We did not have Bob Dylan albums in my house when I was a kid, but we did have Peter Paul & Mary’s second album, Moving (1963), which included “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The trio and “Puff” eventually led me to Dylan and other folk singers. They even led me to John Denver with their cover of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”

Although today I only have a couple of Peter Paul & Mary albums, I have a huge collection of Dylan and other folk songs that they helped me discover. So, while some hear them and think of a group less authentic than some other folk singers because of their smooth harmonies and the way the group formed, I hear the joy in their music.  And I appreciate the role they played in my music education.

“Puff the Magic Dragon”

The story of “Puff the Magic Dragon” began in 1958 when Leonard Lipton, who was a Cornell student, found inspiration in Ogden Nash’s “The Tale of Custard the Dragon.” Lipton used that inspiration to write his own poem about a dragon.

Lipton showed his poem to another Cornell student, Peter Yarrow, who added music and additional lyrics. Not much later, Manager Albert Grossman, looking to capitalize on the growing folk music trend, put together what he saw as a commercial pairing of Yarrow with Peter Stookey and Mary Travers.

Thus began Peter Paul & Mary.  The new group recorded “Puff the Magic Dragon” in 1962, and it went on to rise to #2 on the Billboard charts.

What is “Puff” About?

Several years after “Puff the Magic Dragon” was released, rumors started about drug references in the song. Yarrow and Lipton have both explained that the song is really about a loss of innocence, and Lipton has compared the story to Peter Pan on his blog.

Many decades on, the song’s themes about lost innocence resonate more strongly for those of us who grew up listening to the song. When I hear the song, I think not only about the lost innocence of Little Jackie Paper.  I also think about my own childhood listening to the unusual dark children’s song.  In the song, I sensed some frightening message about the world ahead where little boys do not live forever and dragons are left alone to disappear.

But in addition to the haunting elements, there was something comforting in the way the three voices blended together, revealing something else in the world.  Perhaps there was a touch of the nearly half-century friendship between the three singers that continued until Mary Travers’s death in 2009.

And maybe some things do last forever. I do not know where I will be in another half century, but I do know that children still will be singing the college student’s poem about a dragon who frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee.

Update: Dick Kniss, who played bass for Peter Paul & Mary for almost five decades, passed away in 2012 at the age of 74. He also co-wrote John Denver’s hit, “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” RIP.

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