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'Puff' finally gets his happy ending

The magic dragon frolics again in a new book and CD featuring the classic folk song.

December 19, 2007|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Peter, Paul and Mary, legends of the 1960s folk music scene and voices for civil rights, peace and freedom, have had many harmonic hits, including Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." The group's crooning rendition of one song may have had the widest reach, however.

"Puff, the Magic Dragon" still resonates with adults and children alike, more than four decades after Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton wrote the poignant fantasia about a frolicking, ageless dragon in a land called Honalee, who mourns when his boy companion grows too old to play.

That song, with its intimations of mortality and childhood lost, has inspired a new picture book, "Puff, the Magic Dragon" (Sterling Publishers), and a CD, "Puff the Magic Dragon & Other Family Classics," featuring Yarrow and folk-roots duo Bethany & Rufus -- Yarrow's daughter Bethany and her musical partner, cellist Rufus Cappadocia.

The book adds an upbeat coda to the familiar song through painter Eric Puybaret's illustrations: Puff frolics once more, with the little daughter of his now-adult friend, Jackie Paper.

"It's a relief to me too, after all of these years," Yarrow said of Puff's happy ending. To feel "that sense of longing and sadness is so humanizing in so many ways, but the need for some kind of hope and resolution is important."

"I'm in awe of the resiliency of the song, that it's lasted in this way," he marveled. "In my touring around the country to support the book and now the CD, I find that kids at the age of 3 know it."

Which is only fitting, notes daughter Bethany. "In concert, my dad would talk about the real meaning of Puff," she said, "that it was about the innocence of childhood lost but that there were always other children who needed Puff. So there's a real sense of a cycle, of growing up and passing it on."

The younger Yarrow, who began singing with her father as a little girl at benefits and rallies, is the mother of a 10-month-old. That personal intergenerational theme, echoed in the new book, is a factor in the trio's separate CD, featuring traditional folk songs infused with a contemporary vocal and instrumental approach.

When he sings with his daughter and her partner, "I don't sing the way I do with Paul and Mary," Yarrow said. "In many cases, if not most, I let them lead the spirit of the song, which incorporates musical elements that I would not have thought of, like contemporary jazz, or groove music, or a lot of world music."

A haunting rendition of "The Cuckoo," for instance, features a kora, a traditional West African stringed instrument.

"I recorded 'Cuckoo' with Paul and Mary," Yarrow said, "but this adds mystery to it and a vitality to it that's not the same-old same-old."

Among other tracks on the CD are "Blue Tail Fly," "Foggy Dew," "Cindy" and "Turkeldove." (A short CD that accompanies the "Puff, the Magic Dragon" book includes vocal and instrumental versions of "Puff" as well as "Froggie Went A-Courtin' " and "Blue Tail Fly.")

"We're really reaching for something different musically," Bethany Yarrow said. Using the breadth of her father's knowledge of folk music, "the history of the songs and then pulling him into different musical genres has been really exciting." And it's not just a warm, familial feeling, she said, "but the excitement of revitalizing these songs. Not just bringing them back to their 1960s activist days, where hope was the air that people breathed.

"When you're just on a nostalgic trip it can make people feel sad, because they feel like they've lost something," she said. Finding something new to say with traditional music creates "a constantly shifting landscape where things do seem possible."

And the songs still have the power to connect people, Yarrow said, something he has seen while performing at bookstores -- and, most movingly, he said, at the Connecticut Hospice where he is a board member and frequent visitor.

"There's a feel of a handmade something," he said. "With acoustic folk music, there's no room for artifice. And it's not just the absence of artifice but the persistence of heart-felt substance. That is the legacy that you feel in folk music; that is a legacy of which I am proud. And that's nonpolitical."

"Puff" is just one of Yarrow's many music-related projects. While he and partners Mary Travers and Noel "Paul" Stookey have jointly pursued political and environmental causes, each is driven by individual passions.

The "core of the latest chapter" in Yarrow's life is his involvement in Operation Respect, a free, nonprofit, antibullying, violence-prevention program in more than 20,000 schools across the country, featuring music, video and curricular materials to get its messages across to students.

" 'Puff,' these songs and the album are kind of the commercial side of what I've been doing in Operation Respect," he said.

Yarrow and his musical team will spotlight the program in "A Tribute to the Teachers of America," a PBS television special they are producing for next spring.

"I believe that the window for bringing America its heart back, which has been bruised terribly," he said, "is through the reestablishment of a sense of caring that is not caring just for self, but for each other."

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