Boy, Drummer, Little

Jonathan Bellman

Friend Eric sends a link to this Lewis W. Thompson article about “The Little Drummer Boy,” originally from the Los Angeles Times and reprinted on Christmas Eve by the New York Times.  Thompson characterizes the little tune as one of the most loathed songs in history; its incessant Yoda-like syntax and pa-rum-pa-pum-pums apparently symbolize all that is awful about the holidays.  To him, or to other people, or something.  Anyway, the point of the article is that more than one principal involved (the composer, a foundational arranger) have willed their substantial royalties to music schools, so that generations of music students can pursue performance study on the most serious level, at Wellesley and at Yale, all paid for by the Little Drummer Boy.  So, presumably, shut up for once and stop complaining about it!

Per usual, I am not in harmony with prevailing opinion.  First, anything that supports music departments in institutions of higher education better than their usual last-stop-on-the-resource-delivering-line level is fine with me.  Second, I’m  grateful to Thompson for clearing up such matters as the composer (one Katherine K. Davis), the fact that it was written long before a Christmas TV special with which it is often associated, the fact that the composer’s “Czech Carol, freely transcribed” notation was puckish humor (this is the age of Kreisler’s “arrangements” of nonexistent works, remember) and that it was nothing of the sort, and so on.  So there is some solid information here, which I appreciate.

Now: I have always liked “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Save the superciliously raised eyebrows.  If you can stand “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Frosty the Snowman, “Rudolf” etc. you have a far greater tolerance for abject crap than I.  “Frosty” sounds like a Eurovision Song Contest contestant (minus the risk and raw power, of course) and the movie songs give lounge-lizard wimp-chords (a technical musical term, for those keeping score at home) a worse name than they already have.  At least the Drummer Boy has good honest amurrican triads (not major sevenths and twee Jazz 6ths and other devices that adulterate what I at least think of as a Christmas sound).  Moreover, it’s got a beat, which the aforementioned don’t have.  Plus, I’ve heard the Platonic ideal of the “Little Drummer Boy”—a muzak arrangement that seeks to evoke the Robert John version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as closely as possible.  Now, that is wit!

Brother Joel once played me a bootleg recording of Jimi Hendrix playing around with it (going into Scotland the Brave and God knows what else, if I recall; my single listening was more than a quarter of a century ago).  But I hear it with that wailing guitar, and I’d love to hear a creative, patient resourceful rock drummer underneath, keeping the grooves, with just rum-pa-pums to keep the thread, but with all kinds syncopations and fills and crazy stuff over it—maybe with brushes.  Some fifth-doubled, bluesy, by-third root movement in the guitar, maybe, and…

Of course, what I’m hearing in my head is completely out of step with the text—hard to imagine the infant Jesus smiling benignly at a locked-in-the-groove guitarist and drummer, because I’m not exactly conceiving a lullaby, here.  As far as the ox and lamb keeping time, well, I’ll leave that to your imaginations, because mine isn’t up to it.

I’ll trade all future hearings of “White Christmas” for it, though, in a hot second

Those who celebrate Christmas: have a merry remainder of this one, and stay safe!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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17 Responses to Boy, Drummer, Little

  1. Ed says:

    Delightful! Maybe what your conceiving as a lullaby for the baby Jesus is a cross-over with “Onward Christian Soldiers?”

  2. Bob says:

    Hi Jonathan, Glad you caught this– I agree w/ you. One thing in the story that caught my eye was the comment that KK Davis was disappointed that it got played so much — overplaying it ruined it, she said (or something along those lines). How does that work, I wonder? I can understand one person getting tired of hearing the same song over and over… is that all she meant, or is there something else? Anyway, thanks for the good wishes, as we did have a nice celebration yesterday.

  3. Ralph Locke says:

    I’ve always loved the song, in the standard Simeone choral arrangement–never tire of it, even if the composer did wish never to hear it again. (Various composers have said more or less the same thing about their one disproportionate hit: Rachmaninoff with the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Ravel with Bolero, etc.) I, too, was stunned to learn that there was a well-school composer behind the tune, that she wrote instrumental pieces, and so on. “Someone worth rediscovering, pa rum pum pum pum?” By the way, the Times article was discussed around our family table yesterday. One of my close relatives likes The Little Drummer Boy as much as I do. Another dislikes it to the same degree. I think I recall that loathing of that song was a theme (or precondition, we might say) of an episode of the TV show The Office.

  4. Ralph Locke says:

    Woops, I meant “well-schooled composer.”

  5. eba says:

    That’s right: Season 3 of the The Office (“A Benihana Christmas”) features most of the cast singing karoke during the ep, and of course only Angela (the super tightly wound party pooper from Accounting) would choose to sing to The Little Drummer Boy at a booze-flowing xmas party. (The others sing to Pat Benatar, Alanais Morrisette, John Mayer, Eddie Money, James Blunt [Ain’t them internets wonderful?!?]) And of course when she does it’s a “perfect/laugh out loud” moment for her character.

  6. Steve Smith says:

    Sign me up on the fan side. What strikes me about it now is how the spacing between its melodic units gives it a delicate solemnity, a stasis, and yet the melodic asymmetry in each unit and the displaced harmonic changes (starting with the return to I in the middle of measure 7) make it feel like an adventure.

  7. MWM says:

    A propos not very much, a joke i found on a ‘Chinese jokes’ website:
    There are two Jewish men sitting in a wonderful deli frequented almost exclusively by Jews in the Jewish section of town. They are talking among themselves in Yiddish.
    A Chinese waiter comes up and in fluent and impeccable Yiddish, asks them if everything is okay, can he get them anything, and so forth.
    The Jewish men are dumbfounded. “My God, where did he learn such perfect Yiddish?” they both think. After they pay the bill they ask the manager of the store, also fluent in Yiddish.
    “Where did your waiter learn such fabulous Yiddish?”
    The owner looks around and leans in so no one will hear and says, “Shhhh. He thinks we’re teaching him English.”

  8. eba says:

    Bob Dylan’s The Little Drummer Boy:


  9. eba says:

    David Bowie and Bing Crosby:


  10. eba says:

    Bob Segar (and his Silver Bullet Band?) Audio only:


  11. eba says:

    The Sutcliffs (with pan flute and ventriloquists!)


  12. eba says:

    Dandy Warhols! (but I’m not responsible for the guy in tighty whities)


  13. eba says:

    The Slackers bring a jam/jazz approach:


  14. eba says:

    And finally, Tori Amos:


  15. David Cavlovic says:

    I too always liked the Simeone Chorale version of Little Drummer Boy. And, if you are familiar with Provençal, or even Catalan, Christmas music, you may find more than a hint of influence, Amuricanisms and all notwithstanding.

  16. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Well, I loved the song when I first heard it, singing it in choir in junior high or high school. I dislike the fact that carols and Christmas songs that are played over loudspeakers ad nauseum this time of year, and I dislike hearing these songs over and over and over – which is why I spend very little time in stores between, say, Nov. 20 and Dec. 26.

  17. Laura Richardson says:

    Jon –
    I must check out your blog more often.
    This one had me in stitches. Even though the theme is Christmas music here, and it’s almost Groundhog Day, I’m searching iTunes now for obscure carols…
    Thank you for being so d(*&^n funny, witty, and just being YOU.
    Charming. Insightful. You.
    Laura

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