Monday, December 05, 2005

Carol of the Little Drummer Boy

Carol of the Little Drummer Boy

So, I'll bet you thought (as so many of us did) that The Little Drummer Boy was written and first recorded in 1958 by Harry Simeone and that it's one of the few almost-brand-new traditional carols. Let's see what Wikipedia has to say:

"The Little Drummer Boy" is a Christmas song from 1958 (words and music by Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone). The best-known and most standard version is by the Harry Simeone Chorale. It is also known as "Carol of the Drum".

This would be news to Katherine K. Davis, who wrote the song in 1941 under that latter title (Carol of the Drum). Here's a photo of the original manuscript in the Wellesley College Music Library Special Collections. Debate continues to this day whether or not Drum really was a "freely transcribed" Czech carol. Don't ask me.

However, we do know that it was written/transcribed well before Simeone sicced his chorale on it. And we know it came out in sheet music form prior to Harry's retitling of the number. Here's my copy. Notice the Trapp Family Singers (who were highly fictionalized in The Sound of Music) on the cover:

I love the song, by the way. Based on what I've read, I'm one of the few who do! Yet, how did the thing become a monster hit if people don't like it? Hm.... That's the mystery.

Anyway, next up in the strange history of this song is The Jack Halloran Singers' 1957 recording. It's number two in the folder. Sorry about the less than perfect LP copy.

Dawn Halloran, Jack's daughter, had this to say to "Mr. Music" (Jerry Osborne) re her father's 1957 version:

"My father, Jack Halloran, did the original choral arrangement and recorded it for Dot Records in 1957 (one year before Simeone), with the title Carol of the Drum.

This is its original name, as a Czech carol simplistically arranged for church choirs by Katherine K. Davis as found on the 1957 Christmas is a-Comin' album by the Jack Halloran Singers.

One of the producers on the project was Henry Onorati, who took the chart from the original recording session to Harry Simeone, urging him to record it and get it out before the Dot release.
Simeone made a minimal number of changes to the chart, added finger cymbals (my father's version is a cappella), changed the title, hired all the same singers, and recorded it.

Dot unfortunately didn't put the single out for the 1957 Christmas season, and Simeone succeeded in getting composing credit (along with Henry Onorati and Katherine K. Davis) for a piece he had nothing to do with."

Given what we already know about the song, I'm inclined to believe Dawn. Especially when we listen to Simeone's 1958 version and hear how very close it is to Halloran's. The 1958 Simeone recording is second from the bottom.

My only problem in/with all of this--the Trapp Family's version ain't all that different from the Halloran arrangement. Not to my ears, anyway. The main difference is that The Trapp Family's version is much faster and the "pum" accompaniment stays on the tonic (a tonic pedal, I think this is called?). At any rate, the song's three chords are implied by the melody and countermelody, regardless of what the "pum"-mers do, so Halloran didn't add a vast amount in his choral arrangement, in my opinion. That is, much credit must go to whomever arranged it for the Trapps.

At any rate, we now know that Simeone was hardly the author of this classic number....

Posted by Lee Hartsfeld at 11:44 PM