by Jan M. Ziolkowski
Each year, for longer than a month, vast swaths of the English-speaking world offer no refuge: anyone with functioning ears who clicks on the radio, frequents malls, or rides elevators will be swaddled in the acoustic tinsel of the season. Alongside more conventional standbys are such oddities as ‘The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),’ simulating the voices of hyperactive rodents, and the melody of ‘Jingle Bells,’ barked by a choir of melodious dogs. The Little Drummer Boy, not that it qualifies as a song by real or pretend animals, holds a place of distinction among holiday ditties. From November through December, it commands a special niche in the muzak of the Anglosphere.
The so-called carol is notable for its incessant onomatopoeia of ‘Pa rum pum pum pum / Rum pum pum pum / Rum pum pum pum.’ In fact, if this gently percussive refrain is omitted, the remaining lyrics total fewer than 80 words:
Come, they told me, / A newborn King to see,
Our finest gifts we bring, / To lay before the King,
So to honor Him, / When we come.
Little Baby, / I am a poor boy too,
I have no gift to bring, / That’s fit to give the King,
Shall I play for you, / On my drum?
Mary nodded, / The ox and lamb kept time,
I played my drum for Him, / I played my best for Him,
Then He smiled at me, / Me and my drum.
Beat that! The simplicity, verging on monotony, has not deterred a multitude of vocalists from covering the piece. An alphabetical listing that makes no pretense to more than scratching the surface includes Tori Amos, Justin Bieber, The Brady Bunch, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, Destiny’s Child, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Faith Hill, Whitney Houston, The Jackson 5, Dolly Parton, Pentatonix, Frank Sinatra, The Temptations, and Carrie Underwood. Duets that deserve separate mention for their oddity have been crooned by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly (parodying the preceding), and Johnny Cash and Neil Young. In a related category all its own is a laid-back rendition for Rosie O’Donnell by rapper Lauryn Hill.
Some listeners love the earworm, but others, not so much. Among the haters, Alexandra Petri, a columnist for the Washington Post, brought out in 2015 an opinion piece entitled ‘“The Little Drummer Boy,” the Worst Holiday Song of All.’ In that same year, another critic, Heather Gibson, declared in full Grinch mode ‘I’d be happy if “The Little Drummer Boy” broke his drumsticks and was never heard from again.’ Ouch!
Where did the so-called carol originate? Despite conflicting and often incorrect information in printed sources as well as on the web, both the music and lyrics were the product of one specific individual. Eventually the composer of hundreds of songs, the prolific Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892–1980) studied at Wellesley College, the New England Conservatory of Music, and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. This song debuted as sheet music in 1941 with the title ‘Carol of the Drum’—and with no ambiguity about her name.
The assertion is often made that Davis’s tune, later renamed ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, owes to a traditional Czech folk song, a Christmas carol called ‘Hajej, nynjej’ that is known in English as ‘The Rocking Carol’. Davis herself pointed amateur and professional musicologists toward a Czech folk song, but in fact no discernible similarities in either melody or lyrics exist between ‘Hajej, nynjej’ and her creation.
‘Carol of the Drum’ was first pressed on vinyl in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, later famous from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical ‘The Sound of Music’. At the other end of the decade, an arrangement that rolled off the presses in 1959 became a great success, but without acknowledgment of Davis. The sole departure from the original lyrics came in the change from ‘The ox and ass kept time’ to ‘The ox and lamb kept time’. Under the mistaken impression that the melody was drawn from a folksong, Harry Simeone took credit for the arrangement. His ensemble, The Harry Simeone Chorale, released the first of several recordings in the fall of 1958. Sometimes the producer Henry Onorati was also credited. Subsequently an out-of-court agreement was reached that confirmed Davis’s authorship of both tune and text. The song has remained popular, with an extra boost from a stop-motion animated film version that was first televised in 1968.
What in the content of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ has contributed to its appeal? It is tied to the adoration of the newborn Christ in the manger first by the shepherds and later by the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men. The two instances of devotion are routinely fused in creche scenes. More broadly, the song relates to the anxiety of gift exchange. People, perhaps especially such vulnerable groups as children and artists, are naturally prey to a fear of lacking resources and skills for offering a present, even of prayer, that will be worthy of an important recipient. Such anxiety is all the greater when the recipient is divine. The story of the epiphany that followed the nativity of Christ is likewise preserved in two gospels (Matthew 2:1–12 and Luke 2:1–20). ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ tells us that everyone, without exception, whether rich or poor, virtuoso or not, has something to offer.
The same message comes through in ‘The Juggler of Notre Dame’, as children have been quick to respond when they encounter Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God: An Old Story (1978). Other stories associated with Christmas that respond to the pressures of gift-giving and of determining what offering to make to God include Raymond MacDonald Alden’s children’s book Why the Chimes Rang (1909), Charles Tazewell’s radiocast and book The Littlest Angel (1946), and Gian Carlo Menotti’s television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). In all cases the gist is identical to the one set forth in the nineteenth century in the final stanza of Christina Rossetti’s poem entitled ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, where we feel the contrast between the cold stable in this harsh season and Jesus, before whom everyone from archangels to livestock bows in adoration:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Open-access publishing has inscribed in it the same simultaneity of humility and generosity. Enjoy, whether ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ suits your tastes or not!
Abrahamson, Richard F., and Marilyn Colvin. ‘Tomie De Paola—Children’s Choice.’ The Reading Teacher 33, no. 3 (1979), 264–269.
Davis, Katherine K. Personal letter to Jack L. Ralston, Music Librarian, Conservatory of Music, University of Missouri-Kansas City, dated 22 July 1973. The original may not have survived, but the relevant text is quoted verbatim in Harrison Charles Boughton, ‘Katherine K. Davis: Life and Work’, PhD dissertation, University of Missouri, Kansas City, 1974, pp. 25–26.
Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Vol. 5 ‘Tumbling into the Twentieth Century’. Chapter 4 ‘The Yuletide Juggler’ and Chapter 5 ‘Children’s Juggler and Child Juggler’.
Ziolkowski, Jan M. Reading the Juggler of Notre Dame: Medieval Miracles and Modern Remakings.
Featured image: Front cover of Charles Tazewell, The Littlest Angel, illus. Katherine Evans (Chicago: Children’s Press, 1946)