This Christmas classic was originally a Czech song that Katherine Kennicott Davis translated to English in 1941. Under the title "Carol Of The Drum," it was covered by the Austrian Trapp Family Singers (of The Sound Of Music
fame) a decade later, but a new arrangement titled "The Little Drummer Boy" was popularized by the Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958. Simeone is credited as a songwriter on the track, along with Davis and producer Henry Onorati, but one name that is noticeably absent is Jack Halloran, who actually came up with the arrangement and recorded it a year before Simeone released his version. Dawn Halloran, Jack's daughter, told Songfacts the story:
"This song was originally published as 'Carol Of The Drum,' a traditional Czech carol, by Katherine K. Davis. My father, Jack Halloran, arranged it and recorded it under the same title on his 1957 Dot album, Christmas Is A-Comin'
. Henry Onorati was a producer for Dot who worked on the project and took the arrangement to Harry Simeone, who had nothing to do with my father's recording. Dot was to put out the single of 'Carol Of The Drum' for the Christmas '57 season, but for unknown reasons did not get it out in time. Meanwhile, Onorati took the arrangement to Simeone, who hired the same singers, re-recorded it adding finger cymbals and cutting a difficult passage just before the last phrase. It was then put out as a single under the title 'Little Drummer Boy,' by Harry Simeone, Katherine K. Davis and Henry Onorati. I've seen the master recording of the song and it pre-dates Simeone's by a year. And for the record, no one else ever arranged 'for' my father. He was the arranger for other artists."
Wellesley College, Davis' alma mater, tells a different story about the origin of the classic carol. Claire Fontijn, the chair of the college's music department, said the tune came to Davis on the edge of sleep in 1941. "[One day], when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, 'Patapan,'" Fontijn explained in a 2017 interview
. "And then 'patapan' translated in her mind to 'pa-rum-pum-pum,' and it took on a rhythm."