The Little Drummer Boy (Christmas Song)
“The Little Drummer Boy” is a piece with a distinct, easy to follow narrative interwoven with the repeated line “pa rum pum pum-pum”. That phrase is actually intended to imitate the sound of a drum. And truthfully, whereas the featured storyline is simple enough, one must have some foreknowledge of the Nativity of Jesus to truly understand it.
The Nativity of Jesus
Said event is well-known, being the most-famous birthing in the history of mankind. But just to reiterate, amongst the central characters in that scene were the Three Wise Men or Magi, as they are referred to by some.
And as the legend goes, there was an astronomical sign in the sky that Jesus, i.e. the Messiah, was set to be born, and the Magi, being wise, were able to interpret it. So accordingly they follow said star to the location of Jesus’s birth.
And as the first verse of this song reads, the “little drummer boy”, who is the narrator, decides to tag along with the Wise Men along the way.
The Little Drummer Boy
Now the Wise Men are also known as having been hella rich, bringing Baby Jesus gold and fragrances – frankincense and myrrh – which are still pretty expensive in their natural form to this day. But as for the vocalist, he admits that he is but a “poor boy” with “no gift to bring” yet still desiring to ‘honor their king’, i.e. Jesus, nonetheless. But what he does have to offer is his drumming skills.
So with Mary, Jesus’s mother, approval, the little drummer boy proceeds to do his thing. And apparently he puts on a stunning show, one that even the animals in the vicinity can feel. Moreover, the Baby Jesus himself shows his approval.
So it’s like the titular character played an important role in what is popularly known as the Nativity scene.
But to note, there is no actual mention of the little drummer boy in the Bible, meaning that he is in fact fictional. So logically speaking, this song is meant to serve as a shoutout to Jesus, if you will. That is to say that its purpose is to harp on the true, Christian origins of Christmas, i.e. it ideologically being a holiday intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus more so than anything else.
Who wrote “The Little Drummer Boy”?
There is somewhat of a convoluted history behind the composition of this tune. But generally speaking, the primary writer is considered to be one Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980). Katherine was in fact a musician by profession but largely in an educational capacity, i.e. a music teacher.
She did write hundreds of songs but wasn’t really on the money tip like that. Owing to this, she donated the associated profits to Wellesley College, where she studied music and was a distinguished scholar in that regard. All of that said, her signature achievement was in fact writing “Little Drummer Boy”.
The other credited writers are Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone. The latter was a mid-20th century music executive of whom there seems to be scant information about online. That said, he is noted as being the founder of 20th Century Fox Records, the first label to release “Little Drummer Boy”. And it was he who enlisted Harry Simeone to cover the song in 1958.
20th (Century) Fox Records eventually went defunct in the early 1980s. Throughout its existence, it had employed big name acts such as Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), Lena Horne (1917-2010) and Stephanie Mills. But it should be noted that Harry Simeone’s “Little Drummer Boy” was the first notable hit in the label’s catalog.
Katherine K. Davis is noted as having written this song back in 1941, with it originally being entitled “Carol of the Drum”. As the story goes the tune came to her in a dream, being inspired by a French Christmas song called “Patapan”.
More about “The Little Drummer Boy”?
And the first artists to record Little Drummer Boy, a decade later in 1951 under Decca Records, was an act from Austria known as The Trapp Family.
In between The Trapp Family and Harry Simeone, in 1957 American composer John Halloran (1916-1997) also recorded a rendition of this classic. It was actually his arrangement which went on to become the one we are familiar with today.
Onorati was also involved in that recording and in the process added himself as one of the songwriters. And as for Simeone, the other credited author, his only contribution to Halloren’s take was the addition of finger cymbals.
Also, Simeone’s version was the first to actually be entitled “The Little Drummer Boy”. So with that in mind some individuals, most notably Halloran’s daughter, have basically argued that Onorati and Simeone were unfairly credited while her father, whose arrangement of this song is the one that really caught on, was left out.
But whereas John Halloran’s arrangement may have set the standard for what this song would become, it was Simeone’s rendition that proved to be a massive success. In fact his version reportedly made it onto the US Top 40 (as compiled by Billboard) every Christmas season beginning in 1958 and ending in 1962.
And the tune also served as a plot device in a 2006 episode of the popular sitcom The Office.
And then of course there is the classic stop-motion animated Christmas special, itself entitled The Little Drummer Boy, that first aired in 1968 and is based on this song.
Throughout the years a number of artists who are more known to us 21st century readers have also covered this Christmas classic. And that list consists of the following:
- Johnny Cash (1959)
- Johnny Mathis (1963)
- Lou Rawls (1967)
- Boney M. (1981)
- Bing Crosby alongside David Bowie
- RuPaul (1993)
- Justin Bieber (2011)
- Pentatonix (2013)