Christmas Top Fives: "The Little Drummer Boy"

Christmas Top Fives: "The Little Drummer Boy" December 21, 2013

Some people seem to dislike this particular carol with the passion of a thousand Christmas light bulbs, but I’ve always loved it. (No comment on how much of that attachment is due to sentimental childhood memories of that Rankin Bass special!) No matter how many times I hear it, somehow it always strikes me fresh. Of course, it helps if it’s performed well. Read on to find out who we are featuring today…
1. 4Him: For the 90s CCM version. This allows Andy Chrisman to shine with his signature uncannily pure tone. Perhaps I will always have a soft spot for his voice since it was one of the first voices I grew up hearing on Christian radio. The other three members are also excellent on backup.

2. Jars of Clay: For the “90s too-cool-for-CCM” version. Although I wasn’t exposed to this group at a young age and hence lack the nostalgic attachment some 90s kids have for early JoC, I loved this rendition the moment I heard it. Their own re-booted version just isn’t the same. This is the original right here, and it’s solid folk-rock gold.
3. John Denver: Because it’s John Denver!
4. Vienna Boys’ Choir: Because it’s the Vienna Boys’ Choir!
5. Von Trapp Family Singers: This was the song’s first cut, and to this day it remains, in my opinion, the gold standard of this carol. Completely acappella, relentlessly crisp and disciplined, with the men sounding for all the world like a real drum behind the ladies:
Before somebody asks “WHERE’S BING?” well, I thought about including him. But unfortunately, there was this random, obnoxious British dude loudly singing some random, obnoxious bit of fluff over top of him, so I found it hard to enjoy properly.
Honorable Mention: Harry Simeone Choir — This is one of the earliest recordings of the carol, and it charted in the U.S. from 1958 to 1962 (my, hasn’t radio changed!) The choir director, Harry Simeone, took co-writing credit for the song, even though he only arranged and popularized it under the name “Little Drummer Boy.” (The carol was originally composed using an old Czech text as source material by Katherine Kennicott Davis as “Carol of the Drum.”)
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  • Lydia

    I just noticed that 4Him has the words “Then He nodded…” instead of “Mary nodded.” It makes a surprising difference to the impact of the lyric. If you have it as in the original words, “Mary nodded,” the baby does not make any move until the poignant, “Then he smiled at me, me and my drum,” which leaves a big impact. It’s the climax because it is the first response by the baby Jesus Himself.
    It occurs to me that the Czech text may have been influenced by or a deliberate parallel to the Medieval story of the Juggler of Notre Dame.

  • You’re right, that just seems like an error.
    I’d never heard of the juggler story before, but it does look as though either the one legend came from the other or they were both coming from a third story. It’s definitely an appealing trope.

  • Lydia

    Here’s a bit of trivia. The Vienna Boy’s Choir performance appears to be connected with St. Nicholas’ Day, which is December 6. You see at the end of the live performance after the drum roll, the door opens and a man dressed in a bishop’s outfit with an obviously fake beard and a bag comes into the room. In Austria, somebody dressed up as St. Nicholas comes (or used to come, anyway) around on his official feast day, Dec. 6, with a bag of presents. Maria von Trapp describes it in some detail in her autobiography, as well as other traditions involving St. Nicholas reading people’s bad deeds of the past year out of a large book and making them repent so that they won’t get a switch or coal or something instead of presents. Obviously closely related to Santa Claus.

  • Yeah, it’s Santa Claus, Catholic version. 😛

  • Lydia

    I suppose one could say that Santa Claus was originally Catholic, because “Santa” is a corruption of the word “Saint” and “Claus” comes from “Nicholas.”

  • Lydia

    I have that Vienna Boys’ Choir track somewhere on an old cassette, and I always wondered, what’s with the sudden dissonant chords at the ends of phrases? Is there some genre issue here I don’t know about, or does my taste just disagree with the arranger’s Muse? Because they have always seemed a little strange and artsy.