Merry Christmas to our readers who celebrate the holiday. Today’s Christmas song is “Christmas in Washington” by Steve Earle. The song first appeared on his El Corazón (1997) album, which is one of my all-time favorite records.
As Earle explains in this Austin, Texas performance from 2000, the song is about some of his heroes. Written in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s election in 1996, Earle explains his longing for real progressive change. He invokes the names of people like Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
It has been more than twenty years since Earle wrote the song. But it seems even more timely this holiday season.
There’s foxes in the hen house; Cows out in the corn; The unions have been busted, Their proud red banners torn; To listen to the radio You’d think that all was well; But you and me and Cisco know It’s going straight to hell.
Happy holidays. Leave your two cents in the comments.
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.
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.
The prolific Sufjan Stevens has taken a break from making albums devoted to each of the fifty states to release a five-CD collection of original, covers, and classic holiday tunes. The set, entitled Silver & Gold: Songs for Christmas Vols. 6-10 is a sequel to 2006’s Songs for Christmas, Vols. 1-5. So, if you have not been hearing enough holiday music to get you in the mood for the season, check out the three-hours on the collection of 52 songs, which you may hear below.
On his website, Stevens ponders “what is it about Christmas music that continues to agitate our aging heartstrings?” And he answers:
“Christmas music does justice to a criminal world, marrying sacred and profane, bellowing obtuse prophecies of a Messiah in the very same blustery breath as a candy-coated TV-jingle advertising a string of lights and a slice of fruitcake. Gloria!
“Who can save us from the infidels of Christmas commodity? Look no further, tired shopper, for your hero arrives as the diligent songwriter Sufjan Stevens: army of one, banjo in one hand, drum machine in the other, holed up in his room, surrounded by hymnals, oratorios, music charts, sacred harp books, photo-copied Readers Digest Christmas catalogs—all the weaponry of Yuletide incantations—singing his barbaric yawp above the snow-capped rooftops.”
What is your favorite song on Sufjan Stevens’s new collection? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Test your knowledge of the classic songs appearing in movies and holiday television specials with these ten questions (plus a bonus question). How well do you know your Christmas music? Answers and videos of all the songs appear at the end with your score.