As we get ready for Epiphany, and prepare to hear again the Gospel account of the gifts of the magi, I was reminded of a modern Christmas carol about someone who visited the newborn Christ child, but had no gift to bring.
We know it as “The Little Drummer Boy,” but it began as “The Carol of the Drum” — and the first known recording was actually done by the Trapp Family Singers. You can hear it below. It moves at a brisk clip and may surprise those of us who grew up hearing the legendary, more majestic version by the Harry Simeone Singers.
This popular song has some unusual roots.
The Little Drummer Boy” (originally known as “Carol of the Drum“) is a popular Christmas song written by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941.
The song was originally titled “Carol of the Drum” and was published by Davis based upon a traditional Czech song, Tluče bubeníček. 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 deleted and replaced with “C.R.W. Robinson”, a name under which Davis sometimes published. The Czech original of the carol has never been identified.
“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 Decca.
Their version was credited solely to Davis and published by Belwin-Mills. In 1957 it was recorded, with a slightly altered arrangement, by the Jack Halloran Singers for their album Christmas Is A-Comin’ on Dot Records. Dot’s Henry Onorati introduced the song to his friend Harry Simeone and the following year, when 20th Century Fox Records contracted him to make a Christmas album, Simeone, making further small changes to the Halloran arrangement and retitling it “The Little Drummer Boy”, recorded it with the Harry Simeone Chorale on the album “Sing We Now of Christmas.” Simeone and Onorati claimed joint composition credits with Davis.
The album and the song were an enormous success, the single scoring on the U.S. music charts from 1958 to 1962. In 1963, the album was reissued under the title The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival, capitalizing on the single’s popularity.
But its origins seem to go back even further:
The story depicted in the song is somewhat similar to a 12th-century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (French: Our Lady’s Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to which version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both, as in the 1984 television film, The Juggler of Notre Dame).