Christmas Carol Histories: The Story Behind 'The Little Drummer Boy'
'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
© 2012 Penelope Hart