Wednesday, October 12, 2016

SHG: Peter, Paul & Mary: "Puff the Magic Dragon"

Peter, Paul & Mary: “Puff the Magic Dragon”
Entered the chart on: 3/30/63
Peaked on: 5/11/63
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “I Will Follow Him” by Peggy March

Here’s what I meant about the “real” 60s starting in ’63. As in the “peace and love” 60s that people are familiar with, as opposed to the “twisting fad” 60s or the “teenybopper idol” 60s. To think it would all stem from a whimsical children’s song.

Mind you, this isn’t the first we’ve seen of the folk boom. We heard the first squeakings of it way back in 1960 when the Brothers Four brought “Greenfields” to the cusp of the top of the charts. But Peter, Paul & Mary were the ones who really ushered it in, and opened the floodgates. The next song I cover by them is perhaps more significant (being a cover of a song by a soon-to-be major artist) but this is where the 60s as we knew it really began.

I have a history with this song, which extends beyond seeing eccentric Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry performing her 20-minute confessional opus “Oh My My” in concert, a song that weaves this song into it. This song is part of my childhood, and I’m sure must have come up in my elementary school music curriculum at one point. I definitely remember seeing the animated special based on the song on TV, and remembering that like Snoopy Come Home, it made me weepy. The thought of abandoning the childhood wonder of imagination seemed extremely sad to me. Give me a break, I was eight, and a sensitive child.

Well, one could definitely not question their intent on being folk revivalists. After a sea of songs slathered in string orchestrations and electric guitars, the simple arrangement here featuring a single acoustic guitar stands in stark contrast. Paul Stookey’s voice rings out clear as a crystal bell, Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers’ harmonies chiming along in the refrain.

It’s extremely simple, not much to talk about except for the wistful storyline of the song, which reads like a children’s fantasy story with an uncommonly downbeat ending (Think Charlotte’s Web, if you need a comparison). It still tugs at my heart-strings after all these years. And while it’s sad, there’s a reality to the message: you have to put away your childhood toys and grow up sometime. Maybe some of those stunted man-children surrounded by comic books and plastic junk their parents bought them back in the 80s need to hear this.

As for the “alternate” interpretation, I won’t even dignify it with a response. Paul Stookey has gone on record time and time again to say that there was no “secret, hidden” message in this song, and I, for one, believe him.

I’m generally not a fan of children’s music, but there’s something about this one. I don’t know what it is, but it appeals to me. Maybe there’s a sentimental side to this old curmudgeon.

Rating: 4

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