Let's be honest, most of us have at some point watched "The Little Drummer Boy" and if you are like some of us you probably watch it just about every Christmas. It is the telling of the greatest story ever told but told through a young boy who is bitter at the world. This young child experiences the true meaning and reason for Christmas! Yet have you ever wondered where the moving song that the entire cartoon is built around came from? Wonder no more!
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.
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.
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