“The Little Drummer Boy” on TV and in Song

This post examines the TV special and the story behind the song, “The Little Drummer Boy.” The TV show The Little Drummer Boy (1968) was always one of my favorite Christmas specials. The holiday special was a Rankin/Bass production that featured two Hollywood legends, with actress Greer Garson narrating the special and actor Jose Ferrer providing the voice for one of the characters. Yet, unlike other TV specials, it is no longer shown on network TV and has been relegated to ABC Family since 2006.

A Darker Holiday Classic

Part of the reason The Little Drummer Boy may not be as beloved as other specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is that except for the title song, the music is not as memorable as it is in some other shows. But the main reason the show is the poor step-brother of Christmas specials is that the story of the angry little boy Aaron was darker than many other annual Christmas specials.

The darkness is first found in the song “The Little Drummer Boy,” which has a melancholy sound around the rhythm of the drum. The title makes it sound like a happy song, and nothing sad really happens in the song, but there is a sad aspect of the story.

Unlike many other Christmas songs about the joy and miracle of Christ’s birth, “The Little Drummer Boy” humanizes the baby Jesus, connecting him to other smiling babies. This reminder of the human aspect of the baby foreshadows the human suffering he would find at Calgary.

The TV show further reminds us of the future suffering by featuring the boy’s lamb facing death before being “resurrected.” Few Christmas songs and specials capture the suffering and death aspect of the Christ story.  They instead focus on the joy of birth along with other seasonal reminders like bells and elves. And as a kid, who wants to be taught a lesson at Christmas about hate and love?

When I started writing this post, the entire episode was available on YouTube but it has since been taken down. Instead, here is the end of the show:

The Creators of the TV Special

New Yorker Romeo Muller wrote the screenplay that Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass made into The Little Drummer Boy TV special. Muller also wrote the screenplays for such holiday TV classics as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970), and Frosty the Snowman (1969).

Like The Little Drummer Boy, each of Muller’s specials have a sadness underlying the happy endings, giving each a depth and complexity.  That depth may help explain why we still return to these shows even as adults. Heck, apparently, Libertarians love “The Little Drummer Boy” holiday special too.

The Song “The Little Drummer Boy”

Regarding the song, American composer and music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the song we know as “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941, although it was originally known as “Carol of the Drum.” There are a number of good versions. On YouTube you can find a variety of covers ranging from a version by Jimi Hendrix to one by Faith Hill to Grace Jones performing for Pee Wee Herman.

Surprisingly, though, there are not as many recent classic versions as there are for some other Christmas songs, perhaps because “The Little Drummer Boy” is more religious than some of the other holiday songs. Still, Bob Seger recorded a memorable version for the original A Very Special Christmas album, and below he performs the song in concert.

More recently, Justin Bieber and Busta Rhymes created a version of “Little Drummer Boy” that at least some think is one of the worst Christmas recordings of all time. But the kids seem to like it. You may judge for yourself.

The Crosby-Bowie Version of “The Little Drummer Boy”

But perhaps the most famous version is from another TV show, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (1977). When David Bowie, who was a fan of Bing Crosby was asked to sing ‘The Little Drummer Boy,” he was not happy because he did not think the song suited his voice. So, songwriters Buz Kohan, Larry Grossman, and Ian Frasier wrote “Peace on Earth” to go with the song as a counterpoint melody.

We are drawn to this Bowie-Crosby version because of the odd pairing of singers. Also, during a still tumultuous time following the divisions created by Watergate and the Vietnam War, the nation found a healing plea from two people of vastly different generations singing about “Peace on Earth.”

But we stay and return again and again to this version simply because it is a beautiful rendition of the song.

Crosby and Bowie recorded their version in a TV studio in September 1977, but Crosby never got to see the reaction to the duet. Between the recording and the first broadcast of the special on November 30, 1977, Crosby had died on October 14.

Finally, the Bowie-Crosby version is so iconic and well-loved, that when Will Ferrell (as David Bowie) and John C. Reilly (as Bing Crosby) tackled a reenactment for Funny or Die, they kept the humor subtle and played much of the segment straight.  Thus, they created a humorous segment that also is a tribute to the classic duet, to the holiday, and to the meaning of Katherine Kennicott Davis’s song. Pa rum a-pum pum pum.

Happy holidays! What is your favorite version of “The Little Drummer Boy”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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