Updated: Dec 26, 2022
As a drummer, the tune Little Drummer Boy has special meaning to me. When I was a young drummer, I immediately connected with the rhythm and words, which every Christmas inspired me to play on my drum and share my talents (usually in front of my parents). As a teenager playing in worship bands at a number of local churches, it reminded me that what I was doing served a higher purpose. As a drummer, author, and educator, the tune motivates me to keep playing and gets me fired up to offer my talents to others. As a father, I am moved to share the song and its powerful message with my kids.
Personally, I consider this tune to be somewhat of a drummer’s anthem. While it is not as established in drummer repertoire as grooves like Roger Taylor’s (Queen) We Will Rock You, Gene Krupa’s (Benny Goodman Big Band) Sing, Sing, Sing, or Ron Willson’s (Safaris) Wipe Out, there is something about the groove and words that speaks to drummers. For that reason, I want to talk a little about the history of the tune from a percussionist’s perspective and provide a few noteworthy versions of the song.
It’s Not Written for Drums?
The original song was written for a girl’s choir by Katharine Davis and based on an examination of the original hand written score, there was no intention of having drums in it. However, the “pum, pum, pum” was clearly meant to simulate drumming with voice. She also indicated on the original score, which was titled Carol of the Drum, that the tune was based on a “Czech Carol”(Davis, 1941). While some musicologists argue that this is not the case, there were a lot of folk melodies that were collected and repurposed in classical music in the early 1900s. Composers like Bela Bartok from Hungary and Antonin Dvorak from the Czech Republic are great examples of this.
In 1951 Davis’ Carol of the Drum went mainstream. It was found on the album Christmas with The Trapp Family Singers: Yuletide Songs From Many Lands. This is the same Trapp Family that the musical Sound of Music is based on, which fled from the Nazi’s just three years before Davis wrote the tune. In this version of the song the Trapp’s kick it off with drumming style vocals, which will become a standard for many versions of the song.
Carol of the Drum received a makeover in 1957 that sent it to the top of the charts, which was arranged by Jack Halloran and retitled Little Drummer Boy. But, in 1958 the tune became a bit little scandalous, as it was rerecorded by Harry Simeone’s Chorale and was a hit, as it made it to the top 40 in the United States. The only difference was that Simeone added finger cymbals to Halloran’s arrangement. While there are some serious ethical issues with this (copyright law did not include arrangements at this time), one positive is that percussion was finally included in the tune.
The first time a drum is introduced into the song is credibly the 1968 version of the tune, which was in the clay animation TV special The Little Drummer Boy: Gift of Love. In this arrangement snare drum plays simple half notes, but it is embellished with flams and drags. Plus, the arrangement is loaded with finger cymbals and who doesn’t like finger cymbals.
Since this time, the song has been recorded by numerous artists in a variety of genres, such as country, pop, rock, hip-hop, jazz, and so on. In recent versions of the song, the “pum, pum, pum” has been replaced by real drumming, which adds some awesome variety to the tune. Of course, the integrity of Katherine Davis’ original melody and groove is still there.
Here some solid groove focused examples of The Little Drummer Boy. Please note, I included the Pentatonix version, as the beat boxing is pretty epic.
Great Examples for Drummers
King & Country: This is probably my favorite version of the tune, as the drumming is solid and seamlessly integrates old school rudimental drumming and pop drumming into the song. Plus, there are some additional percussion effects, such as chimes, brushes (one section, fills, and so on).
Pentatonix: The beat boxing on this version, which is designed to simulate drum set, creates a solid groove that could be played by a really drummer. This is a really solid version of the tune.
Alex Boye (djembe version): This is a pretty epic version of the tune, as it combines West African djembe grooves, hip-hop stylings, and some great rhythmic variety in the vocals.
Country Music Awards Version: Great drumming and fun drum break with dancers. The drumming in this is a great blend of groove, military style beats, and country rock.
Gentri: Awesome percussive guitar in the beginning of the tune that serves as a vibrant rhythmic foundation. Once the drums kick in the groove becomes rousing. Likewise, this version is pretty inspiring and really aligns with the positive message of the song.
Big Phat Band: Hip big band version of the Little Drummer Boy that undoubtedly features the drums. I also dig the montuno in the rhythm section that drives the groove.
While not originally written for drums, this song undoubtedly speaks to drummers and more importantly, shows the importance of using your talents and skills to lift others. Keep drumming and Merry Christmas.
John Owens, Ph.D. (Author, Drummer, Educator) is the author of Street Drumming: The People, History, & Grooves and Music at Home: A Parent's Guide to Raising Musically Insightful Kids, which can be found at www.johnowensdrums.com or https://www.johnowensmusicathome.com/books