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!