The Little Drummer Boy, The Christmas Carol That Caused A Legal Battle

When I was in second grade, I sang The Little Drummer Boy as a solo because I was the only child in my grade who knew the words. I still love the song, but there are three things that intrigue me about it. First, how did the ox and lamb keep time? I always envision them with metronomes, snapping their hooves to the beat. Second, living in New Orleans for many years, it sounds as if the drummer is comparing himself to a sandwich when he sings, “I am a Poor Boy too.” Finally, I’m amazed at the story of how the song came to be.

The Little Drummer Boy is the fictional story of a boy who couldn’t afford a gift for baby Jesus. Instead, he played his drum at the manger, once Mary nodded her approval that is. At the end of the song, Jesus smiles at the drummer boy, causing us to smile as well. 

In 1941, Katherine K. Davis wrote the words and music to The Little Drummer boy which she called The Carol of the Drum. Some claim she translated an old Czech carol. Others say she adapted the song from an old French legend where a juggler performs for a statue of Mary. Still others say she arranged an existing song with a small to medium sized group of musicians and composers. However, it seems the most likely story is that she wrote the song completely on her own while trying to take a nap. She tried to rest but the words and tune wouldn’t leave her alone. So, she rose and wrote most of the song in one sitting.

Davis finished the song, sent it off for publication, but never really heard much about it. Assuming it was rejected, she went on with her life. Several years later, a friend called her and said, “Your carol is on the radio. I hear it all the time.” Davis asked, “What carol?” Her friend stated, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Davis replied, “I never wrote a carol with that name. On which station did you hear the song?” Her friend paused then replied, “All of them.”

Davis turned on her radio and soon heard a beautiful recording of her song performed by the Trapp Family Singers (Yes, the ones from the Sound of Music). She called the radio station and said, “That’s my carol you’re broadcasting.” They replied that the carol had several names attached to it, but not hers. After some legal intervention, Davis finally received the credit she deserved for writing and composing The Little Drummer Boy. In 1968, the song was made into a claymation animated movie. Eight years later, Sherwood Elementary School in Pensacola, Florida endured my performance of the song.

Pa rum pum pum-pum.

Click here to hear The Trapp Family Singers perform The Carol of the Drum (a.k.a. The Little Drummer Boy)

Click here to hear For King and Country perform The Little Drummer Boy.

Click here to watch the animated movie based on the song.

*Image courtesy of Imir Yalon and Unsplash

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