Version Tracker examines how different artists have performed the same song over the years, adapting it to suit their own needs and times.
Maybe it’s the story. Maybe it’s the onomatopoeia. Or maybe it’s just that everyone digs a dude who can pound the skins. Whatever the reason, “The Little Drummer Boy” has become the unlikeliest of Christmas perennials: an overtly religious number with a martial rhythm, and no mention of snow, trees, or jingle bells. It’s the holiday tune that appeals to crooners and rockers alike—the former because of the pretty melody and sustained notes, and the latter because it has the word “drum” in it.
The actual origins of “The Little Drummer Boy” are somewhat tangled. Educator/composer Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote and published the song “The Carol Of The Drum” in 1941, citing it as “freely transcribed” from a traditional Czech folk tune that in the decades since has proved difficult to track down. The lyrics tell the story of the nativity from the perspective of a poor boy who accompanies the Three Wise Men, and who is so moved by the scene that he offers the one gift he has to the infant Jesus: his talent for the drum. It’s a simple vignette, which probably would’ve required little set-up by any school choir performing “The Carol Of The Drum” during its first decade or so of existence.
That wouldn’t have been the case, however, by the end of the 1950s, when the popularity of the song exploded. The mixed-voice design of Davis’ composition—males singing the beat, females singing the words—appealed to the Trapp Family Singers, who’d moved to the United States after the wartime unpleasantness later fictionalized as The Sound Of Music. In the family’s last few years as a touring and recording performers, they added “The Carol Of The Drum” to their repertoire. Not long after, other popular choral groups followed suit. Then in 1958, orchestra leader Harry Simeone arranged the mostly a cappella song for more instruments, renamed it “The Little Drummer Boy,” and claimed a co-writing credit for his efforts (shared with label executive Henry Onorati, who introduced him to the carol and took a piece of the royalties as his finder’s fee). Simeone’s version became a massive hit.
Ever since, it’s been a staple of holiday albums—and a yearly visitor on television, thanks to Rankin/Bass’ 1968 stop-motion animated special. (Look up almost any recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” on YouTube, and there’s a good chance the uploader will have illustrated it with stills and footage from the cartoon.) The 38 versions below range from stripped-down to grandiose, and from soulful to synthetic. Some embrace the song’s religious message… and some just can’t wait to get to the “ba-rum-pum-pum”s.
Given how many elaborate arrangements and reinterpretations of “Little Drummer Boy” have been attempted over the past half-century, there’s something especially elegant—and haunting—about the Trapps’ original, which just features female voices handling the lyrics while the male voices provide the beat. The tempo’s much swifter than most later versions, and the singers make some subtle changes to the drum pattern at times, meant to evoke the actual story. It’s so immediately arresting that it’s easy to see why other pop performers would be drawn to it. The same can be said of The Harry Simeone Chorale’s slower, grander version, which adds bells and a few more vocal gymnastics, but otherwise stays true to the core virtues of the song: the atmosphere and the tale. How influential was the Simeone take? Even 23 years later, when Eurodisco act Boney M. did its own “Little Drummer Boy,” the recording did as what countless others had done over the preceding two decades: essentially copying the Simeone arrangement and adding more orchestration.
There are few better matches of material and performer than “Little Drummer Boy” and the deeply religious folklorist Johnny Cash. His recorded version fits neatly with the rest of his early 1960s repertoire, combining rural authenticity with big-time showbiz polish, exemplified here by the background singers and bells. (Even the pounding drum is of a piece with Cash classics like “The Rebel - Johnny Yuma.”) Joan Baez is less of a natural fit, though her baroque touches do have the unexpected effect of moving “Little Drummer Boy” away from modern European folk music and toward something even more Old World—like something that would’ve been sung at court by wandering minstrels, during the Renaissance.
Almost soon as American musicians made “The Little Drummer Boy” their own, Europeans singers around the world got busy claiming it back. Marlene Dietrich’s “Der Trommelmann” puts her halting teutonic speak-singing over the familiar drums-bells-choir arrangement. And Raphael’s “El Pegueño Tamborilero” has the flamboyant Spanish superstar giving a somewhat sultry take on the material. Both versions are interesting for the linguistic switch-ups, although neither really stands up to repeated listenings.
What people think of as “Christmas music” was largely defined in the 1960s by the session-players and studio rats who’d mastered the kind of timeless-sounding pop orchestrations that artists like Frank Sinatra demanded. Anita Kerr and Henry Mancini were arrangers extraordinaire, and so prolific that the average “music of your life” easy-listening radio station could probably play only tracks with Kerr or Mancini’s fingerprints on it and not have to repeat a song for at least a week. Neither Kerr’s nor Mancini’s “Little Drummer Boy” breaks the mold or grabs the ear, but that’s kind of the point. They were meant to be pleasant and unobtrusive—just part of the overall Christmas atmosphere, not the star of the show.
Here are two of the unlikeliest acts ever to become best-known for their Christmas music. Guaraldi was a respected jazz pianist before he agreed to score the A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special, which would forever associate his easygoing, somewhat downbeat sound with Charles Schulz’s wintry melancholy. Mannheim Steamroller was a classical-leaning prog-rock band that recorded a surprisingly successful holiday record in the early 1980s, and subsequently built more of a career out of heavy-footed interpretations of carols than it ever had out of noodling rock. (Drop by any given over-the-top neighborhood lights display, and odds are the spectacle has been scored by the Steamroller.) However the move toward twinkling lights and falling snow may have affected their critical reputations, neither Guaraldi nor Mannheim lost their musical personalities. Both of these versions of “Little Drummer Boy” are instantly recognizable as the product of the people who arranged and recorded them.
Because Motown founder Berry Gordy considered himself to be in competition with the other big pop/rock impresario/producers of the 1960s, he had a lot of the label’s acts take a crack at cutting full, traditional-sounding Christmas records. These four versions of “Little Drummer Boy” work as a mini-history of how Gordy’s musicians bristled under his control—and how R&B as a whole started to open up as a result of the rebellions. The Supremes and Stevie Wonder both deliver fairly straightforward renditions, with the latter getting the edge primarily because of the expressiveness of his vocals. But The Jackson 5 add a childish enthusiasm and a hint of playfulness generally lacking from “Little Drummer Boy”s; then The Temptations get downright funky with the vocal arrangement, showing off their harmonies and sense of rhythm. None of these four recordings is dramatically different from Harry Simeone, but they do push further and further out from each other, trying to turn an assignment from the boss into something genuinely personal and artistic.
Conceptually, California’s The Crusaders really take a lot of chances with their “Little Drummer Boy,” giving a solemn religious song a strong surf undertow. The experiment doesn’t exactly work—it smacks of a gimmick, and only half-felt—but it is unusual, which for a gospel-oriented garage-rock band was largely the point. Similarly committed to the bit: the German punkers Die Toten Hosen, who turn the original’s rat-a-tats into a full-on machine-gun assault.
From the opening notes of harmonica and jazzy bass, it’s clear that Rawls’ “Little Drummer Boy” is going to be something special. By the time a full horn section and a swinging drum kit are backing Rawls’ growly “ba-rum-pum-pum”s, the song has become a lot smokier than it ever has, before or since. About the closest in approach is Alicia Keys’ piano-driven interpretation, performed alongside a legit jazz combo when the future superstar was still a teenager with a development deal and no hits. The confidence with which Keys leads her band through her own offbeat “Little Drummer Girl” in the same general league as Rawls’ gritty performance. If she doesn’t quite top it, well… that’s just because no one can.
One of the best-loved versions of “Little Drummer Boy” didn’t make it to a record until five years after it was first recorded. Bowie’s appearance on Crosby’s final Christmas special in 1977—which aired about a month after Crosby died—was, for the longest time, one of those “did that really happen?” oddities common to the 1970s variety show era. But then RCA released the duet on a 45 in 1982, and it became a radio staple, appealing to fans of both singers. Bowie reportedly asked for the “Peace On Earth” refrain to be added because he wasn’t a fan of “Little Drummer Boy,” and the addition helps this performance stand out. But even without the changes, the two men’s voices fit well together. They’re both so deep and resonant—and curiously distant.
Given the natural connection between drumming and rock ’n’ roll, it took an unusually long while for “The Little Drummer Boy” to become as much a staple among the fist-pumping crowd as it is among pop and R&B artists. And then Joan Jett recorded the song with her band The Blackhearts for their album I Love Rock ’N Roll, which came out in November of 1981. (Starting in early 1982, shipments of the album replaced “Drummer” with a Jett original, “Oh Woe Is Me.”) The Blackhearts’ take starts out restrained, but then gets impressively fiery down the stretch, treating the number as a rockers’ showcase rather than a religious parable. Bad Religion continued in that vein for its 2013 Christmas album, which pummels merrily for two minutes and then concludes with a winking Sex Pistols reference.
Bob Seger and his Silver Bullet Band contributed an overproduced “Little Drummer Boy” to the 1987 holiday anthology A Very Special Christmas, establishing a different way that rock acts could tackle the song: by making it bombastic. Seger’s earthy rasp mitigates against the echoing choirs and synthesized orchestra to some degree. The same can’t be said about the similarly fussy versions turned in by Chicago and REO Speedwagon, from the eras when they were getting by on name recognition rather than originality. Unlike the recordings by Vince Guaraldi and Lou Rawls, the Chicago and REO Speedwagon “Little Drummer Boy”s could pop up on the radio right now and would be hard to identify right away, even by the band’s fans. (The most recognizable element in Chicago’s version is Peter Cetera’s voice, but even that doesn’t assert itself until about halfway through.)
Speaking of synthetic and overproduced, here are two tween-oriented “Little Drummer Boy”s that lean on drum machines and studio whiz-bang to make up for perfunctory performances. The Bieber version though does have a healthy dollop of “you gotta hear this” sacriliciousness, thanks to the rap interludes by Justin and Busta Rhymes. Sample line: “Playing for the king / Playing for the title / I’m surprised you didn’t hear this in The Bible.” Never put it past the Bieb to think that the point of the original story is “all hail the drummer.”
Back when The Dandy Warhols were still a struggling young alternative band with a lightly psychedelic bent—and not the modern rock hitmakers they’d become—they recorded a trippy, kind of obnoxious “Little Drummer Boy,” proving that it’s possible to a put a little too much personality onto an old favorite. The same could be said of Bright Eyes’ 2002 deconstruction, which loads up on sound effects and distortion, turning the song into an art-piece that’s distinctive, but not all that listenable. Low and Sufjan Stevens are far more successful at folding their own styles into the carol, with the former delivering something hauntingly spare and slow, and the latter going the hushed-and-gorgeous route. Low’s and Sufjan Stevens’ “Little Drummer Boy”s are examples of how to stay “indie” on a Christmas record without losing the connection to the material.
Even though Davis wrote the song for choirs, virtuoso voices like the “popera” stars that make up The Three Tenors aren’t naturally well-suited to “The Little Drummer Boy,” because they fail to connect to the humility of the character. Charlotte Church succeeds more with her recording, because her voice has a high softness that fits with the drummer himself; although even Church seems at times more interested in hitting the notes than telling the story.
The problem with most single-artist Christmas albums is that most of the effort goes into recording a small handful of new songs, leaving the traditional holiday material to feel a little like filler. There’s nothing really wrong with Destiny’s Child’s “Little Drummer Boy.” The harmonies are sweet, and the neo-soul arrangement is inventive and snappy. It’s just that it sounds a little too sedate overall: a professional job, made to order, and completed on time. It pales in comparison to the version Whitney Houston recorded with her 10-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina for the album One Wish. The electronic elements in Houston’s take are overdone, but the vocals by both mother and daughter are lively and passionate, and the song overall has a dynamism that’s all too rare for “Little Drummer Boy” covers.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama’s 2003 holiday album Go Tell It On The Mountain is a wild one, with the venerable gospel group backing up offbeat guest vocalists like Tom Waits and George Clinton. The Blind Boys’ “Little Drummer Boy” is partially a spoken-word piece, with poet/rapper Michael Franti muttering evocatively in the lead. It’s not especially reverent, but it is striking. For sheer “huh”-ness though, it’s hard to best Bob Dylan, who recorded the carol for his 2009 holiday record Christmas In The Heart. Like the title of the album it’s from, what stands out about Dylan’s “Little Drummer Boy” is its earnestness. He plays the song straight, and the results are, strangely, kind of nice.
Social media superstars and former Sing-Off winners Pentatonix handled “Little Drummer Boy” in the same way they’ve reinterpreted so many other well-known songs: breaking it into parts and then piecing it back together with mathematical precision, giving each member of the quintet getting a chance to shine. Then they put the finished product up on their YouTube channel, where in two years the video has racked up over 67 million views. Pentatonix’s very calculated path to success is easy to sneer at, but it’s hard to deny that the group has talent and savvy. And while this “Little Drummer Boy” is far from the best, it does get back to what Davis originally intended. Here we have just voices, building a scene, one word and one beat at a time.
Ideal cover: Of all the more aggressive elaborations on the song, Lou Rawls’ is the snazziest. A version that combined his kick with the simplicity of the Trapps would be wonderful.
Ideal artist: Honestly, it’s hard to think of too many artists who either haven’t already or won’t soon record “The Little Drummer Boy.” Still, given the song’s ethnographic/folkloric origins, it’d be interesting to hear what a clever pop scholar/thief like Paul Simon could do with it.