Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” is the saddest song. It’s a wonderful song, but it is just so sad. If sad songs really say so much, it says more than any other song.
I’m not sure when I realized just how sad the song is. It’s a song I’ve known my whole life. When I was a kid, I’m sure it didn’t make me cry. I just wonder now how I could have been so heartless as a child. I suppose it does seem innocent enough. It’s a story about a kid and his imaginary friend. But that’s how it fools you. It’s not a story about a kid and his imaginary friend. It’s a story about an imaginary friend and his kid.
That’s a huge difference. The song isn’t about Jackie Paper at all. The song is about Puff. That’s what makes the song so devastatingly sad. It forces us to think about the things that are left behind in childhood from the perspective of those things. Maybe that’s why I didn’t realize how sad that song is when I was a kid. As a kid, I didn’t even realize that I would be leaving things behind as I grew up. I was just excited to grow up. It takes an adult perspective to see the amount of loss that comes with aging.
Another thing that makes it the saddest song is that nothing cuts the sadness. There’s no blame, no anger, no rage, no guilt, no regret. It’s just sadness, pure and simple sadness. It would be easier if Jackie did something wrong, if he had cheated on Puff with another dragon. Then we’d be able to console Puff, tell him he’s better off without that lousy kid. There would be comfort in that. But we don’t get that. Jackie didn’t do anything wrong. He was a good friend. He just grew up. We can’t blame him for that.
Of course there are other sad songs out there, but none of them are quite as sad. John Denver’s “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” (also performed by Peter, Paul & Mary) is a sad song. But it is only sad for now. There’s hope that the narrator will return. “I Wish It Would Rain” by the Temptations is an incredibly sad song, but it is also filled with shame. One of the songs often mentioned as competition for the saddest song is Harry Chapin’s “Cats In the Cradle”, but that’s just silly. “Cats In the Cradle” isn’t even a sad song. It’s about a selfish, lousy father who gets what he deserves. There’s really no competition, when it comes to sad songs, “Puff the Magic Dragon” runs circles around everything else.