‘Little Drummer Boy’ Is The Worst Christmas Carol Ever
Recently I was idling over a linkbait listicle about dogs being shamed for their bad behaviour, and I clicked through to an article featuring a screencap of a woman’s angelic singing face. The headline fell into that irritatingly earnest genre we’re beginning to see more and more: “I Wasn’t Feeling The Holiday Spirit Until I Heard This. The Chills Down My Spine Might Never Go Away.”
Aside from the fact that such a chronic nerve dysfunction sounds really painful, I was encouraged when I saw these spine-chills were coming courtesy of American a cappella sextet Pentatonix. Originally from Arlington, Texas, they came to fame in 2011 by winning the reality TV talent quest The Sing-Off with an cappella arrangement of ‘Eye of the Tiger’. They recently did a great Daft Punk mash-up, and their ‘Evolution of Beyoncé‘ is amazing. Last Christmas, they released an arrangement of ‘Carol of the Bells‘. While it had way too many floppy beanies and Choir Faces for my liking, it was a really nifty arrangement.
But this one I’d just clicked on was a terrible, dreadful, no-good video. Why? The song that allegedly gives people chronic spine-chills was ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
Now, I am not some grinch. I am always feeling the holiday spirit at this time of year. I have 1148 Christmas songs in my iTunes, divided into five separate playlists (“Christmas Soul”, “Christmas Retro”, “Christmas Mum Stuff”, “Christmas Choral” and “Christmas Cheese”).
I find certain Christmas songs moving that others consider obnoxious. (I actually tear up at ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’.) I can even find a certain charm in a truly embarrassing recording of Sebastian, the calypso crab from The Little Mermaid, limping his unconvincing way through ‘Deck the Halls‘ (“Deck de halls with shells and seaweed/Lots of sea stars, that’s what we need/Wear your shiny pearls and de coral/While we sing dis Christmas carol“).
I love carols so much that I hold an annual carols singalong in a Melbourne hotel piano bar on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas, even though I am not very good at playing the piano.
But I refuse point-blank to play ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
It’s Unbearably Gloomy and Pompous
I believe Christmas songs should come in three flavours: jaunty, reverent and joyous. ‘Silent Night’ is a reverent song, as are ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘White Christmas’. Most pop-flavoured Christmas songs have that winking, playful quality that marks them as jaunty: ‘Santa Baby’, ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. Joyous songs are upbeat but earnest, and can include ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and (duh) ‘Joy To The World’.
And then there’s ‘Little Drummer Boy’, composed in 1941 as ‘Carol of the Drum’ by a dreadful American woman named Katherine Kennicott Davis. I put its droning, dragging pace down to the depressed mood in the United States following the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor that catapulted the nation into WWII. Christmas 1941 was a Shit Christmas.
The song was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1955, but its mysterious contemporary popularity began with two unwise men, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone, who made small tweaks and recorded it in 1958 for the Harry Simeone Chorale under the name ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
Why does nobody realise how dreary it is — even the best performers? One of the most painful videos on YouTube involves Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’. I think I’ll die of cringing. This is worse than the Star Wars Christmas Special. Bowie, no! You wrote some truly powerful ballads: ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Life On Mars’, ‘Changes’. You’re so much better than this.
It’s Really, Really, Really, Really Repetitive
‘Little Drummer Boy’ was intended to be sung by amateur choirs, which explains its childishly simple melody. Let’s face it, there aren’t so many tricky words to learn when you’re singing no fewer than 21 pa rum-pa-pum-pums.
The only way I can endure this stupidity is to compare these lyrics to the brilliant verse my friend Leanne composed in high school, entitled ‘A Poem About Something (Not Sex)’:
Have a humpy
Ain’t that sumpin’
Love that pumpin’
I might set these wonderful lyrics to music for us all to sing at my carols event. And it will somehow be a more meaningful and less absurd song than ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
Frightening A Newborn Baby With Loud Drumming
‘Little Drummer Boy’ is usually performed at an unbearably slow tempo that idiots mistake for reverence. But as Animal from the Muppets will tell you, drums are meant to be fun! This sounds like a military funeral tattoo rather than a celebration of a Messiah’s birth!
The story narrated in ‘Little Drummer Boy’ – poor person makes baby Jesus smile with his performance skills – comes from an old French legend, The Juggler of Our Lady. In this parable, a statue of the Virgin Mary comes to life to bless a juggler-turned-monk. The same story is told beautifully in one of my favourite children’s books, The Clown of God by Tomie DePaola. After one final, heroic performance as an old, forgotten man, our juggler hero, Giovanni, is found dead in front of a statue of the Virgin and Child …and baby J is smiling and holding Giovanni’s golden juggling ball.
One important thing about juggling: it’s quiet. Drumming is not. Can you imagine if the events of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ actually happened? What if he actually said “pa rum-pa-pum pum”?
I’m imagining this kid as some way-out beatnik in a beret, stinking of clove ciggies, saying, “Pick up on this, Big JC – I know you dig the frankincense, gold and myrrh, man, but, like, I ain’t got no bread, man, and materialism’s totally squaresville, you dig? Pa rum-pa-pum pum! Whoa, that’s crazy! Pa rum-pa-pum pum! That’s gone, daddy-o! Pa rum-pa-pum pum!”
And Mary rolls her eyes and nods just to get back to her nice silent night in that stable. And the kid starts banging on his bongo making a godawful noise, shouting repeatedly, “Pa rum-pa-pum pum!” And then baby Jesus sets to a decidedly unholy screaming, and the bongo kid interprets Jesus’ terrified grimace as a smile and plays even more vigorously, and the innkeeper puts his dressing gown and slippers on and goes stomping out there and shouts from the stable doorway, “I was doing you a favour, pal, but if ya can’t keep that damn racket down, you can getdafugouddahere! And enjoy a visit from Bethlehem’s finest! I got actual guests in here!”
Magical Beat-Matching Animals
For me, somehow the worst thing about this generally awful song is the line “the ox and lamb kept time“. Random internet user TheMightyVampireTu has perhaps the best debunking of this stupidity, and has produced this wonderful infographic.
Are these animals just kind of tapping their hooves on the stable floor like bathetic metronomes? Or perhaps they headbanging in a kind of Wayne and Garth fashion? But that’d be the most depressive headbanging of all time, since the tempo is so slow.
Either that or they’re nodding in a sagely skeezy way, like the male members of the Black Eyed Peas in ‘My Humps‘.
Or, more to the point, like those poncing dickheads from ‘Blurred Lines’.
Worst. Christmas carol. Ever. QED.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.