Instead of the twelve drummers drumming at the finale of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we start the countdown today with just one lil’ drummer boy. “The Little Drummer Boy,” sometimes was called “Carol of the Drum” and was written by an American composer and teacher, Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980) who sometimes was called C. R. W. Robinson, her publishing pseudonym. Supposedly it was “freely transcribed” from a Czech carol, but it would seem that Ms. Kennicott Davis was quite free, because no one can really trace the words or the music to any Czech carols. Like the Pentatonix version featured here, the song was originally written to be sung without accompaniment with the tenor and bass parts providing the simulated drum-like sounds.
Kennicott Davis has a soft spot in my heart because she wrote this carol for her amateur choirs, bless her. She was a Wellesley woman, and upon her death in 1980 she left all her royalties and income from music compositions to the Wellesley music department to continue to fund music instruction. Whether or not her genius matched Schubert, their output was similar: both of them composed around 600 songs as well as loads of other works. Kennicott Davis also wrote operas, cantatas, choruses, piano solos, etc., and was known as a pianist. She even studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who was all the rage and taught everyone from composers Aaron Copland and Philip Glass to Quincy Jones, who, among other things, was Michael Jackson’s producer.
Kennicott Davis did not seem to leave as memorable a mark as Michael Jackson, perhaps because, as you see in the picture, she is wearing both of her gloves. She did, however, give us “The Little Drummer Boy.” (And, as a side note, she also won the Billings Prize for preaching in 1914, an annual contest at the Harvard Divinity School that still continues now. This is pretty cool for a 22 year-old woman before voting was even legal for women nationwide.)
So how did “The Little Drummer Boy” rocket to the Christmas music stardom it enjoys today? Somewhere in her youth or childhood, Maria von Trapp did something good, and the Trapp Family Singers popularized the piece in 1955, just before retiring and ten years before the massive hit film, The Sound of Music. D0-re-mi and pa-rum-pa-pum-pum.
This year’s countdown will circle around Christmas songs and film or programmed songs more loosely (seeing that today’s has a very loose connection). I also reserve the right to deviate from that as my interests direct. With that in mind, here’s one more programmatic connection for today’s selection: The story of the song is, apparently, an old one. A 12th-century French legend tells of a juggler who became a monk. Both jobs afforded little financial security, and so when the juggler-monk found himself before a statue of the Holy Mother, he had nothing to offer but his juggling skills. The other monks laughed and accused him of blasphemy, kind of like the other reindeer made fun of Rudolph, but the statue came to life and smiled at Le Jongleur de Notre Dame. Mary and Jesus kick off this countdown with smiles.