"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. It was recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. This version was re-released successfully for several years and the song has been recorded many times since.
In the lyrics the singer relates how, as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the nativity where, without a gift for the infant Jesus, he played his drum with the Virgin Mary's approval, remembering "I played my best for Him" and "He smiled at me."
The song was originally titled "Carol of the Drum" and was published by Davis as based upon a traditional Czech carol. Davis's interest was in producing material for amateur and girls' choirs: her manuscript is set as a chorale, the tune in the soprano 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.
Although Davis did search far and wide for suitable material, the Czech original has never been identified, though the style is comparable with the Czech "Rocking Carol", a lullaby collected in the early 20th century by a Miss Jacubickova as "Hajej, nynjej" and given English words by Percy Dearmer for the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. The tune of the "Rocking Carol", however, bears almost no resemblance to that of "Carol of the Drum", as may be heard in several places online.
"Carol of the Drum" appealed to the Austrian von Trapp singers, who first brought the song to wider prominence when they recorded it in 1955, shortly before they retired: 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. The following year the album was released in stereo. In 1988, The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival was released on CD by Casablanca Records, and subsequently, on Island Records. Harry Simeone, who in 1964 had signed with Kapp Records, recorded a new version of "The Little Drummer Boy" in 1965 for his album O' Bambino: The Little Drummer Boy. 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.
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.)
The popularity of the "The Little Drummer Boy" can be seen by the number of cover versions: a total of over 220 versions in seven languages are known, in all kinds of music genres:
The Trapp Family Singers, whose life story provided some inspiration for Rodgers and Hammerstein in their musical The Sound of Music, recorded a song titled "Carol of the Drum" (identified on the Decca record jacket as a "Czech carol") prior to their 1955 retirement. This song strongly resembles "The Little Drummer Boy" in music and lyrics, except for replacing the lamb with an ass in the line "The ox and lamb kept time." This difference in lyrics may seem odd until one realizes that an ox and donkey are depicted in paintings of the Nativity going all the way back to ancient icons of the event. They recall the biblical prophecies of Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 1:3: "The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib."
1957: The Jack Halloran Singers included "Carol of the Drum" on their Christmas album, Christmas Is A-Comin'. The album was reissued two years later as The Little Drummer Boy to capitalize on the success of the 1958 version by the Harry Simeone Chorale.
1958: The popular Harry Simeone Chorale recording rose to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, despite its late issue date in November. Simeone would re-record the song in 1965 and again in 1981.
A version of the song by the German band Boney M. was released both on their 1981 Christmas album, Christmas Album, and as a single (which peaked at no. 20 on the German pop singles chart). It was the last song to feature dancer Bobby Farrell.
Rosemary Clooney released a version of the song on her Christmas album, Christmas with Rosemary Clooney.
An Italian version was recorded by I Cavalieri del Re, an Italian band that specialized in cartoon songs.
The Canadian Brass released an instrumental version of the song or their Christmas album, A Canadian Brass Christmas.
Soprano Kiri te Kanawa recorded the song for her 1982 Christmas album Christmas With Kiri.
Art Paul Schlosser released a version of the song titled "Kazoo Boy" on his album, The ABCs of Art Paul Schlosser World. Schlosser's version uses a kazoo instead of a drum on the "rum pum pum pum" parts.
The McDades released a version of the song with Terry McDade on their album "Noel" featuring an intro with an Indian Ghazal improvisation
Decomposure covered the song, which was released on the Unschooled Records Christmas compilation album, A Very Unschooled Christmas. It was also re-released on Decomposure's own compilation album, Songs from Old Headphones.
Hans-Peter Lindstrøm released a 40-minute electronic version available as a limited CD and download.
Heavy Blinkers featuring Jenn Grant released an alternative look at the song titled "Silence Your Drum." This version is told from the perspective of Joseph and Mary, who would rather hear some lute than the barum-pah-pum-pum of the drum.
Jamaican artist Shaggy covered the song for his single "Jamaican Drummer Boy".
Richard Marx recorded the song and filmed a promotional music video for his holiday album, Christmas Spirit. The song returned him to the Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart's Top 10 for the first time since 1997(fifteen years).
Christopher Lee released the single "A Heavy Metal Christmas," which included a cover of the song.
Walk off the Earth recorded the song for the iTunes session series album, live off the floor.
Pentatonix on November 25 released on YouTube a video in which they cover Little Drummer Boy to the background of Los Angeles.
On December 15 Bellevue Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, Washington performed an arrangement of the song called "Drummer Boy", released on vimeo, featuring over 100 children from four youth choirs.
The Christian rock duo For King & Country record the song for their Christmas EP, Into the Silent Night.