Where Did We Get the Story of “The Little Drummer Boy”?

One of the joys of writing these posts is that I have an excuse to dive into the meanings of Christmas songs that I’ve been hearing all my life and always vaguely wondered about. Up today: “The Little Drummer Boy.” I sort of assumed that it fell into the genre of stories about gifts brought to the Christ child, and it does. I will point out that we have another selection, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” that also uses the image of gift-giving. That song uses such an interesting poem for the lyrics that I hope to get a post written about it before our concert.

On to the Little Drummer Boy! There’s a surprising amount to say here. Let’s start with its origin. (As I’m writing this post I’m listening to the Pentatonix version; you can access the video below.) The song was written in 1941 by a woman named Katherine K. Davis, an American composer and music teacher. Out of her 600+ compositions she is known today only for this one piece. When first published, the heading included the words “Czech Carol freely transcribed by K.K.D.” However, as our friend Wikipedia points out, the original carol has never been found. I guess no one said at the time, “Hey, Katherine! Where’s your source?” or words to that effect. It would be interesting to know what the Czechs had to say in their version, but I guess we’ll have to accept our ignorance.

The song was first brought to prominence by the Trapp Family Singers, who recorded it for Decca Records in 1955. You can listen to them below, too. (I am constantly amazed at the riches available on YouTube.) When you do so, though, you’ll recognize that the arrangement is somewhat different from what we’re singing, and indeed our sheet music lists two composers/arrangers in addition to Davis. There’s a whole backstory here which doesn’t perhaps reflect too well on those people. Another group recorded the song in 1957 at Dot Records under the direction of someone named Jack Halloran who made some changes to it, and an executive there, Henry Onorati, introduced it to his friend Harry Simeone, a composer, conductor and arranger who had dropped out of Juilliard when he was offered a job at CBS as an arranger for bandleader Fred Waring. (Hey, wouldn’t anybody?) Simeone introduced changes of his own when he was asked to record a Christmas album and decided to include the song. You’ll notice that Mr. Halloran does not appear as an arranger but that Mr. Onorati does. Halloran’s daughter, Dawn, has this to say about that:

This song was originally published as ‘Carol of the Drum,’ a traditional Czech carol, by Katharine 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 cymbols 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, Katharine 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. (from SongFacts)

A small hint of bitterness here, no? Simeone and Onorati insisted on being given credit as arrangers along with Davis, even though their changes were pretty minimal. The song went on to be a huge hit. I don’t know how much royalty money Davis ever got from all this, and Halloran apparently didn’t get any.

On to the song itself. Since we have no access to the original folk song we can’t mine that. The storyline is very similar in essence to a 12th-century French tale called “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” in which a juggler performs in front of a statue of Mary in the cathedral, with said statue coming alive, smiling at him and/or throwing him a rose. Did that tale somehow travel to Czechoslovakia and get transformed into the drummer/Christmas version? Who knows. There is another French Christmas song, though, that specifically mentions a drummer, although the whole Mary-baby-smiling scenario doesn’t occur: “Patapan,” written in the 1600’s. This song has the shepherds playing simple instruments as they go to visit the stable and includes the line: “Willie, take your little drum, Robin take your flute and come!” Another similarity to our song is the use of onomatopoeia (you do remember that word from high school English class, don’t you?), with “patapan” as the sound of the drum and “tu-re-lu-re-lu” as the flute, as opposed to our “H’rum-pums.”

There’s a little more about the actual Christmas story in “Patapan” than in our selection, with the lines “Thus the men of olden days for the King of Kings to praise,” and “God and man are now become more at one than fife and drum.”

Ah well. I’ve always loved the line “The ox and lamb kept time.” I’m not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean, but I’ve always pictured those two animals sort of waving a front foot in rhythm with the drum. You can keep that image in mind as you sing, if you’d like!

And a further note about our achingly beautiful final arrangement “”Lo How a Rose/The Rose.” I wrote a post last year about this whole concept of the Christ child being called a rose, so I’m not going to go back into that again. I will just say that the combination of these two pieces is perhaps on a par with that of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria.” (I said perhaps! Don’t tase me, bro!) If you missed that earlier post, you can go here to access it. I’ve added a little more material that occurred to me later, so it may warrant a look even if you did read it.)

Well, I’d better quit. I’m pretty mad at myself for not getting a post up for our first week of rehearsals, as this concert is an absolute trove of riches. But I’ll shoehorn in at least two more posts before we get to sing all of this great stuff.