Puff the Magic Dragon and the Value of a Sad Song

The kids at Johnny’s preschool have become obsessed with Puff. This impresses me. I learned the song when it was already a good five years old (it was originally a poem written by Leonard Lipton, Peter Yarrow’s roommate at Cornell, but recorded by Peter Paul & Mary in 1962). The song fascinated and haunted me. My father would sing it at nighttime on the beach in Long Island, and after I got to a certain age (probably seven) I would have to run away to cry. Recently I heard the song was a favorite among the kids, so when I came in to do music with them, of course I included it. To my amazement, the teachers were all wiping their eyes, but the kids were just fine. I think they benefit from hearing stories that are “real,” and “Puff” is as real as anything you might read in the news.

In my guitar class for parents, we are learning Cindy Kallet’s wonderful “Tide and the River Rising.” All of us tear up on verse three:

Watch that little boy go walking
My lover, watch him as he learns to run
Watch him as he rounds the corner out of sight
Then tumbling back in our arms he comes

What is more poignant than the passage of time, marked by our own aging? And within that, the way that our very hearts change, how that which was so precious to us–painted wings and giants rings making way for other toys–loses its luster. These are painful truths, but I love that children (younger than seven, perhaps) can hear these songs, integrate their message, and grow from them.

Do you shield your children from sad songs? Why? For their sake or yours?

About nields

musician, writer, mom
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5 Responses to Puff the Magic Dragon and the Value of a Sad Song

  1. Lise says:

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this. I used to think I needed to shield kids from sad songs. Bev Bos, a wonderful teacher, got me to rethink that theory and got me singing “The Old Grey Goose” and “Music in My Mother’s House.” You inspired me to sing “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.” That song became a project for last year’s class, it was so beloved. And I think knowing it so intimately helped pave the way to acceptance when, later, all 8 of our chickens were killed; the kids had lots of virtual experience with predators.
    (p.s. Hi. Somehow just found your blog, and am glad to be reading!)

    • nields says:

      Hi Lise,
      I love the Old Grey Goose, and I love that kids can see the fox/chicken situation from two sides. That’s life, right?
      (But I am sorry about your chickens!)
      Love, Nerissa

  2. Kris says:

    This is one of the only songs that I strongly associate with my childhood because my dad knew all the words, so this is what he sang to us. I always loved it. I have a few kids (students) who can’t sort out emotion well in their reading…I think music is a great way to teach kids about feelings so that they can identify and understand them.

  3. Anne says:

    As I recall from being a kid, songs seem to tell me that there were many sad situations in adult life we had no control over. “I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.” “Take the last train to Clarksville… I don’t know if I’m every coming home.” “Goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die, when all the birds are singing in the sky.” It was a real aha moment for me when I was 12 or 13 and realized that the songs dramatized unusually sad moments in life.

    In the bigger picture, I think it is very important for kids to experience sadness in the relatively safe confines of a song. Sadness will come into their lives. I think it would be much harder to understand and bear sadness in real life if you had never visited sadness in your imagination.

  4. Message body My parents were never much on that “hippie music” (as you know, they were both older and from the south – it was a primarily hymns and country music household – I never even heard a Beatles song until my teens!), so I had never really identified with Puff – I’d heard it, but never really listened to the words. The first time I really LISTENED to it was Jason playing it on the guitar and singing it to me. I bawled like a baby, and have always wondered how in the heck this qualified as a kids song, it was so freakin’ sad!

    But then I thought back to the one song I have the most memory of my mom singing to me – I’ve never really been able to track it down completely, it seems she merged two incredibly sad songs, and made up her own melody. Parts of the words have been recorded by the Righteous Brothers on their albums “Songs my Mother Sang Me” (Which is an awesome album title, and something I may steal if I ever record Z a CD of me singing for him). The song is about a dying child, who reassures their mother it’s ok to open the window. “Raise the window higher, Mommy. Air can never harm me now. Let one drop of cooling water, fall upon my burning brow. Tell my loving little playmates, that I never more shall play. Give them all my toys, but Mommy, put my litltle shoes away”. I can remember sitting on my Mom’s lap and feeling very sad when she would sing this song, but not because I had any understanding of what it was REALLY saying – I was sad because my 18 year old sister had left home under bad circumstances. I would think about how we would “never more shall play.” again and cry. A few years later, when my grandmother died, I think it sunk in a little more – Granny Marie had golden wings, just like the wings brought to the little boy in the song, but it had morphed into the comfort of my mothers lap and not really about the message.

    Now that I have a child, I try very hard to be aware of what messages I’m giving Z, and what songs I sing. At first, I didn’t think I’d sing him the song about the little shoes. But I have so few memories of my mom singing to me (many, many more of me singing to her than her to me). I wanted to feel her near, even though she’s gone, so I sing him the horrible song about the shoes. The night he got his first fever, I started singing it without even thinking about it. This was right after being told I needed to wean him for MY health, and right after I got laid off from work. I was already a mess of hormones, emotions and self-perceived failure, and here I am singing a song about a child dying of a fever to my own sick child! What kind of a horrible mother was I, after all? I sobbed and sobbed and held him a rocked and let him nurse for comfort to his hearts content. Everything looked better in the morning, and I still sing him the horrible shoe song, except I always whisper him a story about his grandma first.

    LONG comment short, singing is what’s important. Jay knows how much you love him, and that you’ll take care of the important stuff for him, and I think he knows he can trust you to explain stuff as he needs to know more. Did I just boggart your blog? 🙂

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