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What, you actually thought I WASN’T gonna re-run this one?

Since it seems to be my night for embedding music vids and all.

It’s Cantus, so of course it’s incredible, as one would surely expect. But this year, I’d like to offer a few words on the song itself.

IMHO, “The Little Drummer Boy” is one of the most underrated of all the trad Christmas carols, maybe THE most. I mean, seriously, now: the lyrics are simple but deeply touching; the melody is nothing short of gorgeous, the vocal harmonies ditto; the concept itself is a paragon of creativity, imagination, and understated elegance, as affecting as it is unassuming, even humble. The song gradually crescendos from a pianissimo murmur to a crashing, soul-stirring, fortississimo climax, leaving the listener practically gasping for breath, joyously drained by the end.

The final stanzas exemplify what it is I’m talking about here:

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

There, see what I mean? Over lo, these many years I’ve heard God-only-knows how many renditions and arrangements of “Drummer Boy,” and for the life of me I can’t remember a single one I disliked. A little background info:

The song was originally titled “Carol of the Drum”. While speculation has been made that the song is very loosely based on the Czech carol “Hajej, nynjej”, the chair of the music department at (composer Katherine Kennicott) Davis’s alma mater Wellesley College claims otherwise. In an interview with Music Department Chair Claire Fontijn, the College writes:

Inspiration for “The Little Drummer Boy” came to Davis 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,’” explained Fontijn. “And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm.” The result was “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Davis’s interest was in producing material for amateur and girls’ choirs: Her manuscript is set as a chorale, in which the tune is in the soprano melody with alto harmony, tenor and bass parts producing the “drum rhythm” and a keyboard accompaniment “for rehearsal only”. It is headed “Czech Carol freely transcribed by K.K.D.”, these initials then crossed out and replaced with “C.R.W. Robinson”, a name under which Davis sometimes published.

“Carol of the Drum” appealed to the Austrian Trapp Family Singers, who first brought the song to wider prominence when they recorded it for Decca Records in 1951 on their first album for the label. Their version was credited solely to Davis and published by Belwin-Mills.

In 1957, the song was recorded with an altered arrangement by Jack Halloran for his Jack Halloran Singers on their Dot Records album Christmas Is A-Comin’. This arrangement is the one commonly sung today. However, the recording was not released as a single that year. In response to this, Dot producer Henry Onorati, who left Dot to become the new head of 20th Century-Fox Records in 1958, introduced the song to Harry Simeone. When 20th Century-Fox Records contracted with Simeone to record a Christmas album, Simeone hired many of the same singers that had sung in Halloran’s version and made a near-identical recording with his newly created Harry Simeone Chorale. It was released as a single in 1958, and later on the album, Sing We Now of Christmas, later retitled The Little Drummer Boy. The only difference between Simeone’s and Halloran’s versions, was that Simeone’s contained finger cymbals, and the song’s title had been changed to “The Little Drummer Boy”. Simeone and Onorati claimed and received joint composition credits with Davis, although the two did not actually compose or arrange it. Halloran never received a joint writing credit for the song, something his family disagrees with.

The album and the song were an enormous success, with the single scoring in the top 40 of the U.S. music charts from 1958 to 1962. In 1965, Simeone, who had signed with Kapp Records in 1964, re-recorded a new version of the song for his album O’ Bambino: The Little Drummer Boy. This version was recorded in stereo, had a slightly slower tempo, and contained different-sounding cymbals. Simeone recorded the song a third and final time in 1981, for an album, again titled The Little Drummer Boy, on the budget Holiday Records label.

Harry Simeone’s 1965 version is almost certainly the most widely-known and familiar to the majority of us; even Rip Van Winkle has likely heard that one by now. As much as I’ve always adored “Drummer Boy,” I confess I haven’t heard the Trapp Family’s rendition (yes, THAT Trapp family); in fact, I didn’t even know they’d recorded it, so tragically unhip and out-of-the-loop I am.

Nevertheless, it’s a lovely piece of music, in all its various forms and performative permutations.

The more I read up on the early pop-era standards, the more I have to just sit back in awe and marvel, goggle-eyed and mouth agape, at Mark Steyn’s capacious catalog of “Steynmusic” posts, a great many of which have been excerpted here. The man is a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to the topic, and writes so brilliantly about the music often referred to in show-biz circles as The Great American Songbook. Steyn’s abiding affection for the old chestnuts shines through in every sentence, at times approaching reverence for the songs, the unsung (heh, sorry) composers who wrote them, and the artists who performed and/or recorded them. As gifted a current-affairs/op-ed essayist as he definitely is, I sometimes can’t help thinking that his true calling is as a music critic and historian.

2 thoughts on “What, you actually thought I WASN’T gonna re-run this one?

  1. I have only one quibble with “Little Drummer Boy”:
    It hasn’t been released with a foursome consisting of Phil Collins, Don Henley, Roger Taylor, and sole surviving Monkey Mickey Dolenz, drummers and lead vocalists all.
    It would be epic.

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