Penelope is retired but teaches English in Rome. She is a published feature writer, playwright and poet. She loves local Italian customs.
'The Little Drummer Boy': Song History
Researching this carol lifts lids off all sorts of curious historical 'facts', while throwing bright lights on other, more factual stories.
The original music, a lullaby, is said to have been 'collected' from Czech (by a Miss Jacubickova) and given English words by Percy Dearmer for the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. Having traced both the 'new' English title ("Rocking Lullaby") and the choir itself, I learned that there isn't much about the music, the melody, the old tune, that resembles any aspect of the music of 'The Little Drummer Boy'—not the notes, nor their arrangement, nor anything like the carol—as we now know it.
I double checked with another title that comes up in the research, a very legitimizing couplet of words 'Hajej, nynjej', that is purported to be title of the the very same Czech lullaby (from which the carol is said to have its cultural roots).
Again, the 'Hajej, nynjej' is nothing like 'The Little Drummer Boy'—even if you imagine taking out the 'pa rum pum pum pum' stuff, even if you imagine quickening it, pitching it in a different octave, sing it by the Beatles, there is no whiff, or riff or 'pum pum' of inspiration for 'The Little Drummer Boy'.
So, although the original music may have come from Czech and may have morphed into a Christmas carol in England in the early nineteenth century, there is nothing to trace it specifically (though the references beg to differ) to give it an historical oomph.
It doesn't need historical oomph of that sort.
It's a Christmas Carol that has a history. And if that history didn't start on the lonely woodcutter's accordion in a wood shed in deep forests a hundred years ago, or in the choir stalls of Oxford, then it stands up in the history of show business for more than eighty years with a fan fare. Or better, with a drum roll.
My article traces the history of this Christmas Carol 'The Little Drummer Boy' by the light of my Twenty First Century candle!
How This Song Became a Christmas Carol
It was Katherine Kennicott Davis from St. Joseph, Missouri (1892–1980)—composer of more than 600 hymns and songs for choirs—who composed 'The Carol of The Drum' (in 1941) which was to get into the hit parade (as 'The Little Drummer Boy') more than ten years later.
The Drum Rhythm Was an Accident
The drum rhythm that made the tune so special—even then, presumably—had been accidental. K K Davis had written it in order to help the chorus harmonize between a soprano tune (with an alto harmony) and tenor and bass parts—for their rehearsals only. Somehow the notes remained.
The Harry Simeone Chorale Version
The Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958 released an altered version of the music as a pop record in 1958, after the famous Trapp Family had sung it a few times. And after the Jack Halloran Singers—a year earlier—had already altered the music for a popular music album 'Christmas is a-Comin' (not released). Halloran, like so many thousands of musicians without enough savoir faire in the shark's waters of the music industry, got shunted off the rails with the church choirs arranged by Katherine K. Davis.
Harry Simeone's music 'The Little Drummer Boy' became massively popular. It rose high up, as the soprano notes of the original lullaby, in the hit parades on both sides of the Atlantic through the years 1958–1962. There was no other piece of popular Christmas music quite like it. We loved it.
This was just the beginning.
Bob Seger's Version
How Many Versions Are There?
There are 220 cover versions of the song, in seven languages and in all kinds of genres of music.
These are just a few of the recordings made of the music through recent history:
- 1962. Bing Crosby released it as a solo version 'I Wish You a Merry Christmas' then 1977 with David Bowie 1977 on Bing's final holiday TV Special as a medley titled 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy'.
- 1965. The Supremes recorded the song for their album 'Merry Christmas'.
- 1969. Jimi Hendrix recorded the song and included it in his 1999 EP 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year'.
- 1970. The Brady Bunch released a version on 'Christmas with The Brady Bunch'.
- 1981. Boney M released a German version of the song on their 'Christmas Album'.
- 1996. Apocalyptica released it as a single
- 1998. Alicia Keys released 'Little Drummer Girl' on 'Jermaine Dupri Presents Twelve Souldful Nights of Christmas'.
- 2001. Westlife with Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries sang it live for Pope John Paul 11.
- 2003. Whitney Houston and her daughter recorded it for 'One Wish: The Holiday Album'.
- 2009. Bob Dylan sung a version of the song in 'Christmas in the Heart'.
- 2010. Pink Martini sung the song in their album 'Joy to The World'.
- 2011. Sean Quigley released a 'rock anthem' version video on YouTube and got a million hits in a week.
Johnny Cash's Version
The Appeal of the Lyrics
One hundred and thirteen musicians between 1957 and Christmas 2011 have recorded the song, often including it in their Christmas record release. The music, the words, the soul of it appeals to every type of band, group, soloist.
'The Little Drummer Boy' crosses genres, boundaries, borders, beliefs from Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby to rock god guitarist Jimmy Hendrix, from Marlene Dietrich to Johnny Cash. Chicago did a version of it, Bob Dylan did. Shaggy covered it for 'Jamaican Drummer Boy'.
The endearing lyrics, sung above an onomatopoeic chorus sounding as drums pa rum pum pum pum, have 'Humility' as their theme.
The story in the song is about a little boy who hasn't got a present for baby Jesus but 'to honour him' he plays his drums for him—'I played my best for Him!'—and for this he gets Mary's approval.
Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum, Rum Pum Pum Pum . . .
Is it because it is a musician's song—that it is so liked by so many musicians? Are the players making music out of the sentiments of the song? Are they playing, 'I hold my hat in hand, Lord, and I sing for you, or I drum for you. It's all I've got. It's who I am. I play for you?'. Do they love these words?
Or is it the catchy unique music that either the original composer Katherine K Davis or Jack Halloran or later on Harry Simeone put together? (Or perhaps all three did, combined?) Anyway, between them they created this poor, little soldier boy, an original tune and a popular kind of military rhythm, which sounds as a distant march in the hills of your Christmas imagination.
. . . Rum Pum Pum Pum
Whatever it is that has captured the sweetness of one of Christmas' popular carols, the Little Drummer Boy drums-on in show-business—and round the world—rum pum pum pum.
'Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum
On my drum?'
The History of 'The Little Drummer Boy 'Christmas carol is still in the making.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why doesn't lilttle drummer boy come on tv?
Answer: It probably will one day - when a scriptwriter, or a producer decides it will make a good movie. Until then, I think it has aired as a music video. See the Johnny Cash video!
© 2012 Penelope Hart
Brian Jorgensen on July 31, 2020:
Hej Penelope, an excellent account of the mysterious path lived by this wonderful song. I especially appreciate the research you made trying to find the source Czech composition. I agree with you that may be a futile effort. The only mitigation I can offer is because I and my family are from Denmark and my oldest sister claimed to have heard it somewhere prior to the famous 1958 Simeone version however that could easily have been the Von Trapp version she heard.
So where did this Czech idea come from? I have seen a photo document that shows the words "Czech Carol" penciled in the upper right corner of Katherine Davis' manuscript, this is probably why her daughter repeats the Czech origin story. That manuscript is in the library of Wellesley College where she taught music.
One small correction "Christmas is a Coming" was released by Jack Halloran in 1957, I have a copy of this vinyl LP. Halloran's Carol of the Drum sounds almost exactly like Simeone's 1958 Little Drummer Boy, one small lyrical alteration is 1957 has "the ox and ass kept time" in 1958 it's "the ox and lamb kept time". In 1959 Halloran re-released his album in stereo and changed the title to The Little Drummer Boy to be in step with popular understanding.
Again thank you for doing the good work of researching this fine Christmas song.
Daniel Kelly on December 21, 2019:
Thanks for sharing this article Penolope, the history is very interesting. I wonder why an author would reference an older source if it didn't exist? On the one hand it might add credibility, on the other hand it would make copyright hard to claim. I just posted a recording of this tune to other words up on YouTube and was hit with a copyright claim immediately. If the tune is really old, then the claim isn't valid.
Hfive on December 01, 2018:
Well written article. I am inspired and driven by K.K. lyrics in this piece.... she was writing from the true source for sure. It moves me. Its interesting how little info behind this song there is..... thanks for sharing your research!!
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on December 18, 2015:
It is indeed and blessings for a joyful Christmas. Thanks for your comment.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2015:
What a story behind one of my favourite Christmas songs. Even at this age, I still feel the joy when I hear it. The drummer boy knows it is the best gift...the gift of joy.
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on January 07, 2013:
Nice you found this hub! Thanks for your comment.
jtrader on January 06, 2013:
This is one of my favorite carols.
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on October 19, 2012:
Our family remembers the 60's version! Always a family favorite to this day. Nice of you to comment, thank you.
Judi Brown from UK on October 19, 2012:
I remember the Bing Crosby/David Bowie version very clearly - it was on "Top of the Pops" a lot!
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on October 19, 2012:
You have a lifetime to listen out!!! Hope you find one you like. The Jimi Hendrix one was wayyy out, but great, how about that one?? Nice of you to comment here, thanks, I do appreciate it!
Natasha from Hawaii on October 19, 2012:
Wow - that is so many versions of the song! I have to admit it isn't one of my favorites. It's not that I don't like the song, it's that I don't like some of the most commonly played versions of it. I've always liked a couple of the less-common versions, and now that I know there are about 210 more versions that I was aware of, maybe now I can find other ones I like.
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on October 19, 2012:
angela michelle It's my mom's favorite carol too and it always will be because it brings back all her memories.
Glimmer Twin Fan. I must listen to the Bob Seger version then, thanks for mentioning it - and for your comment.
Just Ask Susan. Thanks!
Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on October 19, 2012:
Always enjoy reading the history behind Christmas Carols. Well done!
Claudia Mitchell on September 05, 2012:
Great hub about my all time favorite carol. Love the list of different artists that recorded it. One that was recently released was by Bob Seger. Not a bad version either. Nice hub!
Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on September 03, 2012:
This was my mom's favorite Christmas song when I was little. I wonder if it still is?
Penelope Hart (author) from Rome, Italy on September 03, 2012:
sgbrown Our family loved it too and although we didn't have to play it (you must have played one mean Little Drummer Boy), we hummed it a lot because its so catching. Appreciate your votes.
travmaj Thank you!
travmaj from australia on September 02, 2012:
This is so well researched and so interesting - I admit I hadn't thought about it before. It is a carol I enjoy - the lyrics resound - I had no idea so many people had recorded it and all the history behind it. Thank you for this. Voted up and interesting
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on September 02, 2012:
The "Little Drummer Boy" has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols. The lyrics are so sweet and humbling. When I was a child, my mom would make me play it on the piano every time someone came to visit. I'm surprised I still enjoy it, but I do. Very good hub, you did a lot of good research here. Voted up and interesting!