Music

'The Little Drummer Boy': The Story Behind the Christmas Standard

AP Photo/Evan Agostini and Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Many of us have heard "The Little Drummer Boy" our whole lives, which makes makes the musical nativity scene seem like something that's probably been around for 100 years or more.

But unless you count the traditional Czech tune it's based on, one of the more popular entries in the Christmas music songbook only dates back to 1941. That's when Missouri-born arranger, conductor and songwriter Katherine Kennicott Davis penned what was initially called "Carol of the Drum." It was first recorded 10 years later by Austria's Trapp Family Singers (the family that inspired The Sound of Music), with their version credited only to Katherine K. Davis.

Jack Halloran slightly altered the arrangement in 1957 for his Jack Halloran Singers. That version became standard after Henry Onorati, a producer from Halloran's label home of Dot Records, took the reigns at 20th Century Fox Records and introduced the song to composer and recording artist Harry Simeone. The success of Simeone's 1958 version, titled "The Little Drummer Boy," popularized an evolving song now credited to Davis, Simeone and Onorati.

Though he's the only one in the story so far without songwriting credits, Simeone's recording made cutting a version of "The Little Drummer Boy" a must for the top crooners and easy listening artists of the '60s: Ray Conniff (as part of a medley with "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas"), Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. Introductions to country (Johnny Cash's 1963 version), pop (The Supreme's 1965 recording) and television (its inclusion on the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack (1965)) audiences came when the now-familiar line "pa rum pum pum pum" was still relatively new to the record-buying public.

Read More: 'A Christmas Story': Where is the Cast Today?

The musical tale of the Biblical Three Wise Men (also known as the Magi or Three Kings) became further ingrained in popular culture through covers by everyone from New Kids on the Block to Pentatonix. In country music, Emmylou Harris included it on one of the genre's classic Christmas albums, Light of the Stable. More recently, Carrie Underwood sang it as a duet with her son Isaiah.

Better versions, such as the famed 1977 duet between Crosby and David Bowie, provide a serene, spiritual respite from non-religious Christmas carols ("White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Deck the Halls") and childhood favorites about Santa Claus.

"The Little Drummer Boy" Lyrics

Come thy told me
Pa rum pum pum-pum
A newborn King to see
Pa rum pum pum-pum
Our finest gifts we bring
Pa rum pum pum-pum
To lay before the king
Pa rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
So to honor Him
Pa rum pum pum-pum
When we come

Little baby
Pa rum pum pum-pum
I am a poor boy too
Pa rum pum pum-pum
I have no gift to bring
Pa rum pum pum-pum
That's fit to give our King
Pa rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
Shall I play for you
Pa rum pum pum-pum
On my drum

Mary nodded
Pa rum pum pum-pum
The ox and lamb kept time
Pa rum pum pum-pum
I played my drum for Him
Pa rum pum pum-pum
I played my best for Him
Pa rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
Rum pum pum-pum
Then He smiled at me
Pa rum pum pum-pum
Me and my drum

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'The Little Drummer Boy': The Story Behind the Christmas Standard