Just A Minute With: Peter Yarrow

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Peter Yarrow, who found fame with 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, is hoping that revisiting his hit song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” will end the belief once and for all that the song was about drugs.

Peter Yarrow (L) speaks on his property in Woodstock, New York in an undated handout photo. Yarrow, who found fame with 1960s folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary, is hoping that revisiting his hit song "Puff, the Magic Dragon" will end the belief once and for all that the song was about drugs. REUTERS/Augusta Quirk/Handout

Yarrow, 69, who co-wrote the song with Leonard Lipton in 1959, last year produced a book adaptation of the song which tells the story of an ageless dragon and his playmate Jackie who grows up, quits imaginary games, and leaves Puff alone and sad.

He also teamed up with his daughter Bethany Yarrow and cellist Rufus Cappadocia to produce a CD edition of “Puff” and several other songs with a TV special called “Peter, Bethany & Rufus: Spirit of Woodstock” being broadcast this month.

Yarrow, 69, who has long campaigned for social change on various fronts, spoke to Reuters about Puff, respect for others, and the power of folk music:

Q: So “Puff, the Magic Dragon” was not about drugs?

A: “No. That is hardly possible for many reasons. Even if I had had the intention of writing a song about drugs -- which I may have had at a later time -- I was 20 years old at Cornell in 1959 when it was written and I was so square at that time, as was everyone else. Drugs had not emerged then. I know Puff was a good dragon and would never had had drugs around him. Now you’ve heard that from the mouth of the dragon’s daddy.”

Q: Why could you never stop the rumor?

A: “When someone is convinced that a rumor is true there is nothing you can do. It’s an annoyance as it defames the sweetness of a child’s song. The song was forbidden on Singapore radio.”

Q: What is the song about?

A: “The innocence of a lost childhood. A dragon lives for forever but not so little girls and boys. At a certain point we have to grow up and put our toys away. It’s sad but it does have hope because the dragon becomes our hopes and dreams. Puff is about believing in something and my life and this program with Bethany is about believing we do have the capacity to really turn the corner in what is a very dark chapter in the United States.”

Q: You founded Operation Respect, a non-profit organization

that was set up to stop bullying in schools.

A: “Operation Respect has been my main and all-consuming work for the past 10 years. My perception is that the kind of bullying, humiliation that goes on in children’s schools leads to high rates of depression that was virtually unknown when I was young and the high suicide rate of teenagers which we know is almost inevitably caused by bullying or mean-spiritedness. It is a reflection of the role models that young people observe on TV shows like a lot of the reality shows. It is also part and parcel of the characteristics in the adult world of America.”

Q: How can “Puff” help this?

A: “It’s about asserting the decency in human beings and the best way to do that is through the arts because logic won’t prevail. That is what Peter, Paul and Mary have done for almost 50 years. We’ve had a huge audience some of whom did not agree with our politics but were touched with the human essence of our songs. I believe folk music has had a positive effect on the decency, humanity and empathy of society.”

Q: Peter Paul and Mary (with Noel “Paul” Stookey and Mary Travers) broke up in 1970 but got back together in 1978. Are you still performing together?

A: “Mary had leukemia and she overcame it with a bone marrow transplant. She is recovering and feeling terrific. But we have not performed for over a year and won’t again until September. So I’ve have had a year and a half with space to do other things.”

Editing by Sophie Hardach