Every year when people gather to sing Christmas carols, one of the most popular and cherished is the song: Little Drummer Boy. What most people probably don’t know is that this is one of our newest ‘traditional’ Christmas carols.
“The Little Drummer Boy,” originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” was written by the American classical music composer Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. It was recorded 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and further popularized in 1958 when the Harry Simeone Chorale released their version to great success. Musical Artists ranging from Ray Charles to Bob Segar, from Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Cash have all recorded this traditional tune. Perhaps the oddest recording came from Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing Little Drummer Boy as a duet. In all, there have been over 200 known covers of Little Drummer Boy with recordings in at least seven languages.
But what is it about this song that captures the imagination of both Christian and non-Christian alike? No one can deny that there is power in music and when the lyrics reach for the transcendent, music touches something deep inside all of us. That certainly is true with Little Drummer Boy.
The lyrics tell the story of a poor young boy who was summoned by The Magi to come to the Nativity. Unable to afford a gift for the infant Jesus, the boy plays his drum for the newborn with the Virgin Mary’s approval. Miraculously, the baby seems to understand and smiles at the boy in gratitude.
The song is told in the voice of the boy who recognizes that he has nothing to bring (when we approach the Newborn King—nothing is all we can bring). But the boy gives what he has—he gives his drum, which is to say he gives himself.
Little Drummer Boy concludes with the ox and lamb grooving to the boy’s drum beat (how cool is that?) and after he plays his absolute best, the baby Jesus looks up at the boy and smiles. In his smile, the Messiah says, “Thank you, little boy. The gift you have brought me is better than all of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh in all the earth.” But the gift the boy brings is not to earn the pleasure of this newborn king. The gift he brings is to feel the pleasure of this newborn king.
This Advent Season may we also look to live lives that are worthy of our newborn king. But let us live not to earn His pleasure—but to feel His pleasure!
To show you the range that this Christmas Carol generates, I included two versions of Little Drummer Boy. The first is by Bob Seger and the second is a live performance from the musical group Celtic Women. Enjoy!