I grew up watching the animated cartoon but never knew anything about the song that made it all possible.
I learned some interesting things about the author and the song; I hope you enjoy the story and just in case you would like to hear it after reading about it, I included the song below song by the Vienna Boys Choir!
The little drummer boy
Katherine Davis lived eighty-eight years and during that time wrote more than one thousand pieces of music. A piano teacher at Wellesley college, her work as a composer would earn her an honorary doctorate from Stetson university and a writing award from the American society of composers, artists, and publishers. Yet while thousands of choirs performed Davis’s cantatas, while millions have heard her choral anthems, she is best remembered today for a single song – a very simple carol penned in the months preceding World War II.
Katherine Davis was born in 1892 in St. Joseph, Missouri. Katherine so loved music that from childhood she saw the world in melody and verse. A student of history, Davis spent time learning both American and European folk music. Combined with the choral anthems she sang in church and school, these influences led to Katherine’s developing a musical style that was rich in content and harmonization. So unique and accomplished were her original pieces that, while she was still a young woman, Davis earned the praise of a host of music publishers and critics. She also grew used to hearing choirs sing her best work.
Driven to penning as many as two or three songs a week, Davis was constantly searching for new inspiration. She read the Bible, history books, and even children’s fairy tales. She especially was drawn to folk legends. She even adapted several of these into songs and musical plays. It was probably in an ancient European story that she uncovered the inspiration for what would become her most beloved work.
There are many French and English folktales concerning gifts given to the baby Jesus. These touching stories of poor people sharing what little they had to celebrate and honor the Lord’s birth have been passed down for hundreds of years. Yet in the Great Depression, these tales of seemingly unworthy gifts given from the heart being magnified into something wondrous meant more than they ever before had. In a world where tens of millions couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas card, a gift from the heart was now all they had to offer their friends and families.
There can be little doubt that Katherine understood the suffering that was all around her. She no doubt witnessed poor children peering through toy-shop windows at the same time fathers and mothers were being forced to make presents out of leftover pieces of twine, wood, and ribbon. She had to wonder if these handmade gifts would bring joy or disappointment on Christmas morning.
The third variable that probably moved Davis to pen her most famous Christmas ode was the looming threat of another World War. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a somber mood in almost every church service, radio news report, newspaper story. The world was on the brink self-destruction, everyone knew about it, and there appeared to be no way to avoid the conflict.
With these thoughts in mind, Davis, who most often penned complex and intricate musical pieces, sat down at the piano in 1941 and wrote a very simple song about a very unpretentious Christmas gift. Imagining a poor child coming to witness the birth of the Savior, Katherine composed “The Carol of the Drum.”
The child who was the focal point of Davis’s song might have been from ancient Israel, but in 1941 he could have come off the streets of any American town. He was a victim of poverty, a polite child whose only possession was a small drum. All he could offer was to “play his best.” But before he began, still very unsure that what he was offering was good enough for a king, the small boy asked Mary if his gift would be appropriate. It was the story that millions knew well in the days of economic chaos and impending war. After all, it was a time when peace on earth seemed like a fairy tale.
Even though its message seemed so much a part of the times, “The Carol of the Drum,” spurred on by its elementary percussion beat, did not become one of the songs that inspired a world at war. Like thousands of other Christmas carols, it was pushed aside. During these years Americans instead clung to sentimental numbers such as “I’ll be home for Christmas “ and “White Christmas”. In fact it seemed the holidays of World War II had less to do with the gospel of Luke and much more to do with families praying to be safely reunited for a future Christmas Day. So for almost two decades, “Carol of the Drum” remained an unknown melody with a forgotten message. During this time, Katherine moved on to other types of music and messages.
In 1958, Harry Simeone, while searching for ideas for a Christmas album, happened upon Davis’s carol. Simeone had once directed the famed Fred Waring Orchestra. He now had his own choir. Sensing that voices could blend to produce a drum beat, the choir leader dusted off the World War II reject. He then rearranged Davis’s “Carol of the Drum”, renamed it, and took it to the recording studio. Convinced this song was a hit, in November the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “Little Drummer Boy” was released. In the era of rock and roll, doo-wop, and teen idols, the Christmas story of a poor child and his drum took the nation by storm.
By 1962, “Little Drummer Boy” had been recorded more than a hundred times and had appeared on the pop charts on five occasions. The song had also been featured on countless television shows and was being adapted into an animated movie starring Greer Garson. By the end of the decade, only two other Christmas songs, “White Christmas” and “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” had generated more success.
No one was more shocked by the public’s response to her “Carol of the Drum” than was Katherine Davis. At the age of seventy, after working for more than five decades in relative obscurity, she was suddenly in the nation’s spotlight. Her story of a child who played drums for the baby Jesus would keep Davis in the nation’s heart until her death in 1980.
Katherine Davis could not explain why “Little Drummer Boy”came to mean so much to America. Perhaps a part of it was due to the climate that had enveloped the nation the year Harry Simeone recorded the song. For the first time people wear faced with the prospect that man had the power to blow the earth apart with the push of a button. The fear of nuclear bombs ending time itself caused many to yearn for an era when peace on earth came down to something far less complex than a United Nations debate or an Iron Curtain separating good from bad and fight from wrong. So the carol that had been written on the eve the Second World War became a prayer for peace during the height of the Cold War. Maybe, some thought, if the leaders of the world would simply listen to the hearts and minds of the children, then peace would be deemed more important than territorial of political disputes. Perhaps a single drum played with sincerity could silence the angry voices long enough to focus on the real reason for celebrating Christmas.
Simple, direct, and honest, “Little Drummer Boy “might have been based on a legend, but in its verses are beautiful examples of the best Christmas gift of all – a rich present wrapped in love and delivered by a child.
Here is another "Behind the music" story on "Christ the Lord is risen today". I learned some interesting things about it; did you?
The earliest forms of the hymn can be traced back to a Latin text from the 14th century. In 1708 the four Latin stanzas were translated into English and published by J. Walsh in Lyra Davidica under the title “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” A few decades later, in 1739, a modified version was published by John and Charles Wesley in Hymns and Sacred Poems under the title “Hymn for Easter Day.” It is this version, later shortened and supplemented with the “Alleluia” refrain, that has become the hymn that remains so popular today. Here are all 11 stanzas published by the Wesleys. It is worth reading through each one thoughtfully, and perhaps especially the ones that we no longer sing. They are rich with biblical allusion and the wonderful implications of Easter.
1. "Christ the Lord is ris’n to-day,”
Sons of Men and Angels say!
Raise your Joys and Triumphs high,
Sing ye Heav’ns, and Earth reply.
2. Love’s Redeeming Work is done,
Fought the Fight, the Battle won,
Lo! our Sun’s Eclipse is o’er,
Lo! He sets in Blood no more.
3. Vain the Stone, the Watch, the Seal;
Christ hath burst the Gates of Hell!
Death in vain forbids his Rise:
Christ hath open’d Paradise!
4. Lives again our glorious King,
Where, O Death, is now thy Sting?
Once He died our Souls to save,
Where thy Victory, O Grave?
5. Soar we now, where Christ has led,
Following our Exalted Head,
Made like Him, like Him we rise:
Ours the Cross; the Grave; the Skies.
6. What tho’ once we perish’d All,
Partners of our Parent’s Fall,
Second Life we All receive,
In our Heav’nly Adam live.
7. Ris’n with Him, we upward move,
Still we seek the Things above,
Still pursue, and kiss the Son,
Seated on his Father’s Throne;
8. Scarce on Earth a Thought bestow,
Dead to all we leave below,
Heav’n our Aim, and lov’d Abode,
Hid our Life with Christ in God!
9. Hid; ’till Christ our Life appear,
Glorious in his Members here:
Join’d to Him, we then shall shine
All Immortal, all Divine!
10. Hail the Lord of Earth and Heav’n!
Praise to Thee by both be giv’n:
Thee we greet Triumphant now;
Hail the Resurrection Thou!
11. King of Glory, Soul of Bliss,
Everlasting Life is This,
Thee to know, thy Pow’r to prove,
Thus to sing, and thus to love!
I must say, I wish we had these verses still in our hymnal today!
I thought it would be interesting to share the history behind some popular hymns we sing at Easter. The first is "Christ arose" by Robert Lowery.
The hymn was written by Robert Lowry, a pastor and musician. Lowry served churches in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He was a graduate of Bucknell University, where he also served as a professor and received his doctorate.
While having his daily devotion at Easter time in 1862 the words to “Christ Arose” came to him. The hymn was inspired by Luke 24:6-8, specifically the part that says “He is not here, but is risen.” He immediately wrote out the words, and having an organ in his house, sat down and wrote the score. He said “My brain is sort of a spinning machine, for there is music running through it all the time.”
“Christ Arose” was first published in 1875. The hymn shows the contrast between the moods of the death and resurrection, with a vigorous tempo used in the refrain to express that Christ was indeed risen.
Lowry’s songs often paint word pictures. He usually wrote the words and tunes at the same time. Others hymns include “Nothing But the Blood,” “I Need The Every Hour,” Marching to Zion,” and “Shall We Gather At the River”. Later in his life, after the death of William Bradbury, he became the editor of Biglow Publishing Company. His songbook, “Pure Gold”, sold more than one million copies.
I am just an ordinary girl who is loved by an extraordinary God and I seek to love others the same way. I love to bake, read, do puzzles, watch Hallmark movies, and go shopping with my mom! This blog was created as a place where I could share some thoughts that the Lord has shown me and to be an encouragement to others who desire to know Him in a deeper way. My prayer is to learn to sit still and trust God with my future.
Did you know that Sit Still my Daughter has a magazine for women? Real woman share real stories of their struggles with self-worth, fear, anxiety, infertility, and waiting on God for their spouse. Click here to read it!