The Little Drummer Boy

Album: The Little Drummer Boy (1958)
Charted: 13 13
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  • "Little Drummer Boy" is set around the time of Jesus' birth, when Israel was under Roman rule and the Jews were awaiting a Messiah to deliver them from bondage and become the new King of Israel (however because he didn't fulfill that prophecy, he's not considered the Messiah in Judaism). Unlike most Christmas carols about the Nativity story, such as "The First Noel," "Away In A Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," and "O Holy Night," this one places the emphasis on a different child: the little drummer boy. When he's summoned to honor the newborn king, who lies in a manger in Bethlehem, the poor boy can't afford to buy a gift that's fit for royalty, so he offers his talent instead. He taps out a pa rum pum pum-pum rhythm on his drum, and the baby Jesus smiles.

    Although there's no such percussion prodigy in the biblical account of the birth, which is detailed in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the drummer boy's determination to play his best for Jesus exemplifies passages like Colossians 3:23-24, which reads, "And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men."
  • 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."
  • Harry Simeone is a conductor and arranger from Newark, New Jersey. He worked on various Bing Crosby movies and was the conductor for a popular TV show called The Firestone Hour from 1952-1959. The album, released as Sing We Now Of Christmas but re-titled The Little Drummer Boy in 1963, was his first album with a choir.
  • The Harry Simeone version was released around Christmas every year from 1958-1962. It made the US Top 40 all five years and became a holiday classic.
  • Here's a trivia question for you: What song was recorded by both Johnny Cash and RuPaul? The answer is "Little Drummer Boy" - and both versions charted! Cash reached #63 with his sparsely arranged 1963 rendition, and RuPaul's more lavish take reached #113 in 1993. You can also find a funky instrumental from Moonlion that went to #95 in 1975.
  • One of the more interesting duets in musical history took place on September 11, 1977 during filming of Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas special, where he planned to sing "The Little Drummer Boy" with David Bowie. The show was recorded in London, and had a "Christmas in England" theme. Bowie, who was 30 years old to Bing's 73, was convinced to appear after producers agreed to air a performance of his new song "Heroes" on the show, which Crosby introduced.

    When Bowie got to the studio, he made it clear that he did not want to do the song, so the writers on the show whipped up a new arrangement with Bowie singing the words "Peace On Earth" and some additional lyrics as counterpoint to Crosby's vocals. The thought of pairing a crooner with a glam rocker proved to be more than a gimmick, with this unique version becoming a Christmas classic.

    Bing Crosby died before the Christmas special aired, which drew a lot of attention to the program. The duet could have easily died right there as well, but bootleg copies circulated and it grew in popularity. Much to Bowie's disgust, it was eventually released officially by his label RCA in 1982 and made #3 in the UK. The move soured Bowie's already strained relationship with his record label and he left RCA soon afterwards. The song was further popularized by MTV, which launched in 1981 with very few videos in its library. In particular need of Christmas videos around the holidays, MTV played the Bing/Bowie clip for many Decembers, introducing it to a new generation.

    In 2008 the BBC DJ Terry Wogan and former choirboy star Aled Jones recorded a new version of the revised "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" adaptation, for a charity compilation album released in aid of Children In Need. Issued as a single under the name Bandaged, it became a UK #3 hit for the duo.
  • In the UK, this was a hit in 1959 for The Beverly Sisters as well as Michael Flanders. A version by the Pipes And Drums And Military Band Of The Royal Scots Guards was also a hit there in 1972.
  • This song was the basis of an animated TV special in 1968, also called Little Drummer Boy. It was about an orphaned child who goes on a quest to find his camel, which he discovers when he finds the Three Wise Men. This TV special never became a holiday classic like Frosty The Snowman or Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.
  • This was used on The Office in the season 3 episode "A Benihana Christmas," where it's sung by Angela at the office Christmas party.

Comments: 22

  • Mario Velasco from ArgentinaHello, can i get a copy of the music sheet? Acttualy i want the Frank Sinatra version. I sing in a amateur choir in Córdoba, Argentina.
  • Ricky from Ohsweken, Ontario CanadaPerfect version of this song even though the way it sounds scares me a tad (no lie).
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn December 20th 1959 the Harry Simeon Chorale performed "The Little Drummer Boy" on the CBS-TV program 'The Ed Sullivan Show'...
    It first entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart one year earlier on December 22nd, 1958; eventually it peaked #13 and spent 9 weeks on the Top 100...
    For the next four years it charted during the Christmas season; #15 in 1959, #24 in 1960, #22 in 1961, and #28 in 1962...
    Three covered versions have charted; Johnny Cash (#63 in 1959), The Jack Halloran Singers (#96 in 1961), and Moonlion (#95 in 1976).
  • Stan from Lansing, MiThe Katherine K. Davis version has several differences from the one of the Simeone Chorale. In the first place, the words vary. The first verse is the same.The second verse begins "Baby Jesu...I'm a poor boy, too." It's not "I am a poor boy..." preceded by a rest on the first beat. It begins right on the beat. It should be noted that the words say, "I have no gift to bring that's fit to give a king..." not "our" king. Similarly in rhythm to the second verse, the third verse begins, "Mary nodded...Ox and ass kept time..."

    In the second place, the harmony is much simpler. The carol is intended to be sung a cappella. While the sopranos and altos render the melody and linear harmony, the basses and tenors shift between G and D sung as a bare fifth followed by G's in an octave to imitate the sound of a drum. On the chord change, they simply sing a D followed by an octave higher D in the tenor line. There is no shift to the subdominant chord, it's just tonic and dominant, and the harmonies in the women's parts play against them. The men's parts shift rhythms for each verse. In the first verse, it's a simple "prum prum" on quarter notes; in the second, it's "prum pum pum" on a quarter followed by two eighths. In the third, it begins with a more urgent rhythm of "prum puppa pum puppa pum..." and when the boy starts to play triplets are added on the second and fourth beats with the word "puddley" before "pum," and as mentioned in the history above, there is a section where the basses and tenors do a complicated rhythm to replicate drumming before the final phrase, "then He smiled at me."

    In my opinion, it was very wrong for Onorati and Simeone to take credit for the co-authorship of this song when all they did was change a few words and their rhythms and add a chord. K. K. Davis was responsible entirely for this song, except for its origins in Bohemia, which she noted.
  • Rosa from Long Beach, CaThis song reminds me of my father. It's a really
    nice and touching song. I really enjoy hearing this song.
  • Alan from Sault Ste. Marie, OnAbsolutely beautiful Christmas song. I'm baffled that there are people who criticise it. Had you been 10 as I was when this song was first played on the radio you might have a deeper appreciation of this timeless classic.
  • Desiree from Warner Robins, GaCan someone please help me! When I was very young my grandma would play "The Little Drummer Boy" for me right before bed. The record player was in her room and we'd lay in her bed listening to it. I remember it sounding very fuzzy, but homey, and sung by a man. I don't think I have found that version that is in my memory. Does anyone know what I am talking about? It is one of my favorite Christmas songs and holds great memories for me. I also think it is interesting that it was originally a Czech song seeing how I am and eighth Czech. :)I had not idea.
  • Jerry from Brooklyn, NyAs I wrote in an earlier post, this version can get on your nerves after a while. The two Temptations versions are wonderful, as I posted there. But there are others. I have an old Christmas LP (in vinyl!) by Joan Baez. She sounds strikingly like Julie Andrews on this song. Johnny Cash has a rather bizarre rendition in which he chose to omit the "ba-rumpa-rumpum" part and it sounds wrong that way. Finally, I have just now listened to a marvelous version the Celtic Woman -- a true joy! It's the singer, not the song, in some cases!
  • Michael from Van Nuys, CaI remember when they started to play this on the radio in the late 50's. I was 5 yrs old at the time and this song stood out from all the others. Christmas music would be played from Thanksgiving to New Years back then and no one ever got tired of it. I consider the ethereal and spellbinding Simeone recording to be the last true example of the classic Christmas spirit songs, and so belongs next to 'Little Town Of Bethelem', 'It Came Upon A Midnight Clear', and several others as being uniquely beautiful and compelling, and almost magical.
  • Ronald from Brooklyn, Ny There is a mystery about this song which has been bothering me for decades, perhaps someone can help.
    In the '60s. I distinctly remember a beautiful, older recording of this song. It was almost the only version played by New York city radio stations. On one of it's last playings in the early '70, the radio guy, unusually, talked about the recording.
    He lamented that no one was playing that "classic" version anymore because they wanted stereo. He identified the recording as being by The Vienna Boys Choir and being on an early 1930's 78 on a German label!
    It _sounded_ that old, with a nice mellow ambiance. The singers were _boys_ and men with only a finger cymbal added. Unfortunately by the time I was able to own a tape recorder, no one played that record anymore! Knowledge of this recording seems to have disappeared! It is certainly NOT the "original" Simeone Chorale version, nor the earlier Trapp family recording. I can find no earlier recorded reference.
    The _really_ strange thing is- this recording is older than the "first" 1941 publishing date of "The Carol Of The Drum" by Katherine K. Davis! (she is the sole "creator" by the way).
    Does anyone have info on this recording? Does anyone know the fabled "Czech" original? I go through this every year and I _really_ want to get to the bottom of it.
  • Jerry from Brooklyn, NyThis song can be rather cloying and annoying. On two of their Christmas Albums, the Temptations perform this, in two different arrangments, that make it worth listening to. But then, when did the Temps ever do anything that was not worth listening to?
  • Claire from Oak Ridge, TnTori Amos is the only one whose rendition makes this song tolerable.
  • Scott from St. Louis, MoBob Seger does a great version. His best homage to drums after Hollywood Nights.
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiaactually got the DVD Little Drummer Boy on e Bay cost me $30 big ones ..what the heck's Xmas

    Merry Xmas everyone
  • Pete from Melbourne, AustraliaCan someone tell me how to pronounce "Simeone"? Is it a homophone of "simian"? Thanks!
  • Brian from La Mesa, CaBill from FL, the drummer boy used a snare drum from the limited edition Pete Best signature series. The series was a failure when Best left the Beatles.
  • Bill from Southeastern Part Of, FlToward the beginning of this version of the song, you can hear a little noise, like someone bumping their musical instrument against a music stand. Does anyone know the story behind how that brief sound was made? I know -- "Get a life," right? But, I laugh every time I hear it. Also, regarding the Crosby-Bowie video, notice how Crosby is singing the words from a piece of paper. I'm a huge Bing Crosby fan, but one would think he would be able to learn the words for the video. One more thing: I absolutely hate the lines -- "I played my drum for Him; I played my best for Him." When I hear that, I am always wondering what type of musical instrument is a "best"?
  • Jude from Thomasville, GaI remember seeing the Crosby/Bowie duet as a preteen in '77. We had heard enough about David Bowie to wonder what he was doing on a Bing Crosby Christmas special.For the young'uns, Bing Crosby epitomized the old fashioned values -- his whole family would be there with him. When Bowie showed up on Bing;s doorstep, he seemed to be the antithesis of all the gossip -- no glitter, no makeup, just a nice soft spoken Englishman. He and Bing were very polite to each other. They chatted a bit and Bowie mentioned that he had a young son who was excited about Christmas. When they finally got down to the real business of singing, it was really lovely how well their voices blended. It was a special holiday moment, perhaps because Bing showed us that Christmas is for everyone -- a time to come together and focus on the good things instead of always carping on the bad. That's really what the song is about, giving of yourself and your own unique talents. And as Linus always says, "That's what Christmas is all about."
  • Pete from Nowra, Australiai've always loved this that line
    "i have no gifts to bring"

    "come see the new born King".....i get a chill
  • Matt from Charleston, ScThe Crosby-Bowie duet is my favorite Christmas song. The song was taped in England before his death in Oct. 1977, but shown in Dec, 1977 so def. NOT 1982. For Bowie, he has said that this was a surreal experience for him. Some wonder if Bing even knew who Bowie was. As for Bing & Christmas songs, his "White Christmas" was best selling single in the world til it was surpassed by Elton Johns "Candle in the Wind 97".
  • Dave from Winthrop Harbor, IlI obviously do not know all of the particulars, as Dawn Halloran does, but I can vouch for the fact that Jack Halloran's album, "Christmas Is a-Comin'," predates Harry Simeone's "Little Drummer Boy." My parents owned a copy of the Halloran LP, and by good fortune, they handed it down to me. The recording is not in the best of shape, but it is a wonderful Christmas album, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music.
  • Shell from Riverdale, GaI have to agree with Jeff from Boston, the Crosby/Bowie duet is a classic. It was '77, not '82, though. I watched the show and remember being completely astounded when Bowie joined Bing on camera, and even more so when they sang.
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