The Little Drummer Boy

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"The Little Drummer Boy"
Single Harry Simeone Chorale-The Little Drummer Boy cover.gif
One of US single picture sleeves
Single by Harry Simeone Chorale
ReleasedDecember 19, 1958 (1958-12-19)
Label20th Fox

"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.[1] First recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, the song was further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale; the Simeone version was re-released successfully for several years and the song has been recorded many times since.[2] In the lyrics, the singer relates how, as a poor young boy, he was summoned by the Magi to the Nativity of Jesus. Without a gift for the Infant, the little drummer boy played his drum with approval from Jesus's mother, Mary, recalling, "I played my best for him" and "He smiled at me".

Origins and history[edit]

The song was originally titled "Carol of the Drum" and was published by Davis, subtitled "Czech carol freely transcribed by C.R.W. Robertson". While speculation has been made that the song is very loosely based on "Hajej, nynjej",[3] the chair of the music department at Davis's alma mater Wellesley College claims otherwise.[4] In an interview with Music Department Chair Claire Fontijn, the College writes:

Inspiration for "The Little Drummer Boy" came to Davis in 1941. "[One day], when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan,’" explained Fontijn. "And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm." The result was "The Little Drummer Boy."

The purported Czech original of the carol has never been identified.

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.[5][6]

"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 the label. Their version was credited solely to Davis and published by Belwin-Mills.[7]

In 1957, the song was recorded with an altered arrangement by Jack Halloran for his Jack Halloran Singers on their Dot Records album Christmas Is A-Comin'. This arrangement is the one commonly sung today.[2] However, the recording was not released as a single that year. In response to this, Dot producer Henry Onorati, who left Dot to become the new head of 20th Century-Fox Records in 1958,[8] introduced the song to Harry Simeone. When 20th Century-Fox Records contracted with Simeone to record a Christmas album, Simeone hired many of the same singers that had sung in Halloran's version and made a near-identical recording with his newly created Harry Simeone Chorale.[2][9][10] It was released as a single in 1958,[9] and later on the album, Sing We Now of Christmas, later retitled The Little Drummer Boy. The only difference between Simeone's and Halloran's versions, was that Simeone's contained finger cymbals, and the song's title had been changed to "The Little Drummer Boy".[2] Simeone and Onorati claimed and received joint composition credits with Davis,[2] although the two did not actually compose or arrange it.[9][10] Halloran never received a joint writing credit for the song, something his family disagrees with.[9][10][11]

The album and the song were an enormous success,[12] with the single scoring in the top 40 of the U.S. music charts from 1958 to 1962.[9] In 1965, Simeone, who had signed with Kapp Records in 1964, re-recorded a new version of the song for his album O' Bambino: The Little Drummer Boy.[13] This version (3:18 play time) was recorded in stereo, had a slightly slower tempo, and contained different-sounding cymbals. Simeone recorded the song a third and final time in 1981 (3:08 play time), for an album, again titled The Little Drummer Boy, on the budget Holiday Records label.


"The Little Drummer Boy" has been recorded by many artists, such as:

  • The Beverley Sisters' version reached No. 6 on the UK Singles Chart.
  • Johnny Cash released a version of the song on his Christmas album, The Christmas Spirit; this version was previously a US chart single during the Christmas season of 1959.
  • Johnny Mathis released a version of the song on his second Christmas album, Sounds of Christmas, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard's special Christmas Singles chart; re-recorded the tune in 1969 for his next Christmas album, Give Me Your Love for Christmas.
  • Joan Baez recorded a version of the song for her Christmas album, Noël, which peaked at No. 16 on Billboard magazine's special Christmas Singles chart in December 1966. The arrangement was by Peter Schickele.
  • Lou Rawls released a version of the song on his Christmas album, Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!; this version was also released as a Capitol Records single that peaked at No. 2 on Billboard magazine's special Christmas Singles chart in December 1967, and then at No. 5 on the same chart in December 1969.
  • Kenny Burrell released an instrumental version of the song that peaked at No. 21 on Billboard magazine's special Christmas Singles chart in late December 1967.
  • One of the more well-known versions is a duet by the unusual pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Crosby's final holiday TV special (Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas) as a medley titled "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy"[14] It was commercially issued as a single by RCA Records in 1982, and charted at No. 3 in the UK.[15]
  • In 1981, the Euro-Caribbean group Boney M. released a cover on their successful Christmas Album (the single peaked at no. 20 on the German official single chart).
  • RuPaul released an R&B version of the song as a single on Tommy Boy Records which bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart at No. 13.
  • Terry Wogan and Aled Jones recorded a cover of the 1977 David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy"; after a brief campaign amongst listeners of BBC Radio 2 instigated by Chris Evans to get the song released in support of the Children In Need charity, it was released as a single on 8 December 2008, reaching No. 3 in the UK Top 40 singles chart.[16]
  • Richard Marx recorded the song and filmed a promotional music video for his album, Christmas Spirit, which reached No. 13 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart (returning to the chart after 15 years).
  • Pentatonix released a video of their performance on YouTube;[17] released as a digital single, it both debuted and peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.[18][19]
  • The cast of Glee recorded a version that rose to number 31 on Billboard's Holiday Digital Songs chart.[20]


  1. ^ Boughton, Harrison Charles (1977). "Katherine K. Davis: life and work". Ann Arbor, Michigan: Thesis, University of Missouri, reprint by University Microfilms. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ a b c d e Leigh, Spencer (5 March 2005). "Harry Simeone Populariser of 'The Little Drummer Boy'". Independent. Archived from the original on 27 November 2019. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  3. ^ Crawford, Deanne. "The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Unit Study". Our Homeschool Forum. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  4. ^ "Wellesley Faculty Experts Provide Historical Context for Christmas Carols for WGBH, U.S. Postal Service". Wellesley College. Wellesley College. Retrieved 8 December 2020.
  5. ^ "Image of original manuscript in Wellesley College Library". Archived from the original on 4 January 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  6. ^ Cummings, Robert. "Allmusic biography". Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  7. ^ "Scan of published sheet music". Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  8. ^ Anonymous, "20th Fox set with 1st Disk Releases." Billboard April 21, 1958.
  9. ^ a b c d e "The Little Drummer Boy by The Harry Simeone Chorale Songfacts". 11 September 1977. Archived from the original on 25 November 2019. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  10. ^ a b c Estrella, E. (8 February 2019). How the 'Little Drummer Boy' Christmas Carol Came to Be.
  11. ^ Colin Larkin, ed. (2002). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Fifties Music (Third ed.). Virgin Books. p. 394. ISBN 1-85227-937-0.
  12. ^ Ankeny, Jason. "Harry Simeone Chorale". AllMusic, Netaktion LLC. Archived from the original on 12 June 2020. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  13. ^ Record catalogue number: KL-1450, Track 1, Length 3:18.
  14. ^ Crosby, Bing; Bowie, David (7 December 2010). "Bing Crosby & David Bowie - The Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth". YouTube. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  15. ^ Zaleski, Annie (30 November 2017). "When David Bowie and Bing Crosby Rang in the Holidays". Ultimate Classic Rock. Archived from the original on 28 November 2020. Retrieved 27 December 2020.
  16. ^ "Bandaged: The Album".
  17. ^ [Official Video] Little Drummer Boy - Pentatonix. YouTube. 25 November 2013.
  18. ^ "Pentatonix Chart History (Holiday 100)". Billboard. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
  19. ^ "Top 100 Songs". Rolling Stone. 5 August 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
  20. ^ "Glee Cast Chart History (Holiday Digital Song Sales)". Billboard. Retrieved 3 November 2020.

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