Song critics still debate an urban legend that the lyrics of “Puff the Magic Dragon” loosely conceal a reference to marijuana. But the fact remains that the two composers were bonafide Cornellians.
Peter Yarrow ’59, of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, created the popular 1960s tune when he revised the lyrics written by friend and fellow Cornell student Leonard Lipton.
The story goes that 19-year-old Lipton was inspired by an Ogden Nash rhyme about a “Really-O Truly-O Dragon” that he read at the library one night. According to Molly Darnieder ’98, director of Campus Information and Visitor Relations, some students believe that that he wrote the lyrics in the Straight. The more popular account, however, says Lipton walked to Yarrow’s house down the hill and typed the lyrics on Yarrow’s typewriter.
“It was in my senior year, during finals, before the winter break, that the basis of the song was typed out on a sheet written by Leonard Lipton, who was kind of my little brother …” Yarrow said in a 1996 article in Goldmine.
Yarrow then reworked the words and composed the music.
“And contrary to popular belief it is not about smoking weed,” Darnieder said.
Lipton himself has been quoted as saying the song is about “loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world,” rather than marijuana. “It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.”
Cornell legends abound relating to topics ranging from romance to sports.
“This place is just full of tidbits that people don’t [hear] very often,” Darnieder said.
As one of the few Universities to institute co-educational instruction at its inception, Cornell is rich in fables about relationships.
For example, if a student refuses a kiss on the suspension bridge, the bridge will supposedly collapse and fall to the bottom of Fall Creek gorge.
“You shouldn’t test that one,” Darnieder said.
University Archivist Elaine Engst M.A. ’72 heard a different legend. “If you kiss on the suspension bridge, you’ll get married,” she said.
Based on personal experience, “It works,” Engst said.
She noted, however, that “at that point neither of us were Cornell students.”
A similar legend is set farther up the gorge.
“If you walk around [Beebe Lake] holding hands with someone, you’re going to marry that person,” Darnieder said. “That might not be a good one to test either,” she said.
One student said that if a bride gets dressed in the crypt of Sage Chapel, it will bring her marriage good luck.
According to Darnieder, “They put a mirror in there and most of the brides get ready in the crypt.” The reason, she said, is because, “There’s nowhere else for them to wait.”
One of Cornell’s oldest legends regards the statues of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White on the Arts Quad.
“If a virgin crosses the Quad at exactly midnight, the statues will get up and shake hands and congratulate each other on the chastity of the student body,” Darnieder said. “A local fraternity paints the path with the footprints every year.”
The footprints first appeared in November 1936 and “immediately became a tradition, forever piously renewed,” Morris Bishop wrote in A History of Cornell.
Wells College, Cornell’s neighbor on Cayuga Lake, has a related story.
“Legend has it that when Cayuga Lake freezes over, all members of the first-year student class at Wells College are virgins. In honor of the event, the President is supposed to cancel classes for the day,” according to the Wells College website.
The last time Cayuga Lake froze was in 1979.
Cornell adopted its favorite frozen sport, ice hockey, in 1896.
“Prof. Johnny Parson, Engineering, fascinated by the game, built and maintained a rink on Beebe Lake through popular subscription. The team of 1907-8 was undefeated and in 1911 we won 11 games and the collegiate championship,” Bishop wrote. He added parenthetically, “But this primacy was obtained on city rinks, owing to Beebe Lake’s habit of melting before a scheduled contest. “Back in that time, Cornell’s football team was also victorious. In 1915, the team was undefeated and number one in the nation, perhaps inspired by the University’s new mascot, a live black bear named Touchdown.
“They kept him awhile, then he got mean,” Engst said. The original Touchdown was followed by Touchdowns Two, Three and finally Touchdown Four in 1939.
“And then sometime in the 1950s they started to have a cheerleader in a bear suit,” Engst said. “And now of course they have the girl bear.”
The Cornell bear suit has varied widely through the years. “Apparently until 1968 the bear suit was red,” Engst said. Someone stole the suit, so they replaced it with a new one that looked more “bear-like,” she said.
Cornell’s sport nickname, the Big Red, came from a song called “The Big Red Team” written by a student from the class of 1904, according to Engst. And Cornell’s uniforms of red and white reportedly provided the color scheme for a renowned canned food label.
“The story is somebody saw a Cornell football game, loved the colors, and hence the Campbell’s soup can label,” Darnieder said.
Engst advises the office of Campus Information and Visitor Relations on campus history. “[She] read our tour manual a year ago cover to cover to make sure everything was historically accurate. But legends are legends,” Darnieder said.
Archived article by Heather Schroeder