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The History of “The Little Drummer Boy”

| December 7, 2021
Category: Inspiration

“The Little Drummer Boy” is a simple song that exemplifies a goal that I believe many of us share in life….to give our very best in all we do. While the world defines success by wealth, status, or notoriety, the writer of this well-known Christmas song seemed to succeed in the background. Let me share with you the story of Katherine Davis and “The Little Drummer Boy.” 

Katherine Davis

Katherine Davis was born in 1872 in Missouri. She lived 88 years and during her lifetime wrote more than 1,000 pieces of music. She spent her days as a piano teacher at Wellesley College and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Stetson college for her work as well as many other awards. Countless choirs performed her cantatas and millions heard her anthems. She is known today only for a song written shortly before World War II, “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Katherine was a student in history with a passion for American and European folk music. This combination of folk music and traditional choral anthems sung in the church created her own signature musical style. She was a driven composer, often writing 2-3 songs a week. Always searching for new inspiration, she read history books, fairy tales, scripture, and even folk legends. 

Folk Tales and World Wars

There are many folk tales from the French and English describing gifts given to baby Jesus. Many were tales of the poor bringing all they had to lay at the feet of the Christ Child. The gifts were deemed unworthy by the world’s standards but were truly a sacrificial gift to honor the son of God. 

During the months preceding World War II, life was so hard for many families. Money was tight and nerves were on edge. Christmas was full of handmade gifts and hand-me-downs. There is no doubt Katherine felt and knew the worries of the time. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, America felt the looming threat hanging over their homes and their hearts. Peace seemed very far away and this was felt in every part of life. 

“The Carol of the Drum”

With her talents in musical composition, the influence of folklore, and her faith, Katherine Davis sat at her piano in 1941 and wrote a simple but beautiful song about a poor boy who wanted to bring a gift to baby Jesus. Having nothing he owned of any value, he used his talents of playing the drum to honor the baby. She named the song “The Carol of the Drum.” 

Once released, “The Carol of the Drum” was not very popular. As families waited and prayed for their loved ones to return from war, they preferred songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas” over Katherine’s song. For almost 20 years, her song remained unknown and she focused her efforts on other songs. 

“The Little Drummer Boy and the Cold War”

It wasn’t until 1958 that “The Carol of the Drum” sprang into an instant hit. Harry Simeone, a famed orchestra and choir director of the time, came across the song. He was instantly inspired to blend voices to create a drum beat and he renamed the song “The Little Drummer Boy.” The simple story of a poor child and his drum took over the nation. In the middle of rock-n-roll and doo-wop music, Katherine Davis’ words became wildly successful. 

At the age of 70, after working diligently and almost in obscurity for 50 years, Katherine Davis suddenly found herself in the nation’s spotlight! By 1962, “The Little Drummer Boy” had been recorded more than a hundred times and on the nation’s pop charts five times. By the end of that decade, only two other Christmas songs had generated more success –  “White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Much like on its first release, the United States found itself with the threat of the Cold War when “The Little Drummer Boy” was re-released. For the first time, the notion that man could press a button and annihilate human life was a real threat. Nuclear bombs were on the minds of everyone. Perhaps it was this incredible stress that made Americans want to go back to a simpler time where instead of fighting, arguing, and threatening each other, the world could live in peace. 

“The Little Drummer Boy” and the Pandemic

As I studied the history behind this heartfelt song, I could not help but draw similarities to life today. While war is not knocking on our doorstep, the pandemic is all around us. For almost two years, our world has done its best to stay 6 feet away from each other, to stay home, and for many to fight for their lives battling Covid-19.

While last Christmas many stayed home and missed traditional gatherings with family, the real reason for our Christmas celebration was reignited. For many years Christmas was overcome by events, shopping, decorating, and all the stress that goes along with that. When all of that is stripped away, we realize once again something we knew all along… that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of God’s son on earth. That Christmas is not about what gifts we are getting but about what we can give to others….even if it is simply a heartfelt playing of a drum.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy reading The History of “Joy to the World” and The History of “Silent Night.”

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