Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

In this series Aaron collects examples of Bob Dylan recording songs that he didn’t writte and Tony notes a few immediate thoughts as he listens.  This is episode 38 – details of all the previous episodes is given at the end of the article.


As with “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, The Little Drummer Boy was originally popularized by the Harry Simeone Chorale, in 1958.

The song was originally titled “Carol of the Drum”. Inspiration for “The Little Drummer Boy” came to songwriter Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. “when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan,’   and then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind to ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm.” The result was “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Tony: This is one of those songs that seems to have been with me all my life – not a piece of music I particularly cared for but I must have heard it on the radio or TV as a child I guess, and my Dad would probably have played it to me on the piano.  I have, from a very early age, had the ability to hear a piece of chord-based music (such as this, and most pop and rock) and be able to remember it, and play it back on piano or guitar, or recorder…   As a party trick it impresses some people, but really it’s not that unusual in musicians.

So yes I remember it – another song from childhood days.  But it doesn’t do much to me.

Aaron: Joan Baez included her version on her own Christmas album Noël, in 1966

Tony: Because of the title and the lyrics it is inevitable that a drum has to be in there playing away – although what’s rather nice here is that the song is speeded up.  At least that is how it seems to me from a memory of other people’s versions of this.  I can’t recall it going at this speed before.

And that really does give this recording an edge.   And I like the way at the start of the verse there is a moment where it sounds as if the musicians have forgotten that they are doing the fast version, by stretching out the melody.

I was ready to be a miserable old man and criticise every version of this song, but this really is something else.   And it brings back a memory.  I’ve no idea how old I was at the time – maybe four years old but I was given a toy drum as a Christmas present and oh how my parents regretted that they did that!

Aaron: Here is Bob’s version – with the original official video

Tony:  So what does this add which we didn’t have before?   Before I first heard it I wondered what Bob would do, and it is a perfectly reasonable and decent version and the background chorus fits well.  In fact, it all fits well.   But I am not sure I want to play it again.

Aaron: There are literally hundreds of versions of the song, so I thought I would include two that I really like to finish off with.  First Everyone’s favorite Little Drummer Boy, Ringo Starr.

Tony: If you are a regular reader you will know that we sometimes have a problem in that a video that will play for Aaron in the USA won’t play for me in the UK.  That’s true here.  I’m including Aaron’s video and a Ringo Starr version I have found that plays in the UK.  I’ve hoping they are the same!

the UK playable video….

Tony: Now this one I like because it plays to Ringo’s strength and it is inventive and different.  It is also bouncy and jolly, and after a not very jolly night last night that’s what I want.  Love the introduction of the bagpipes at the end.  And really this point seems to be an important one to me – much depends on one’s mood at the time.  I write my pieces in the morning, sometimes before sometimes after breakfast.  The site would probably look very different if I wrote everything in the evening.

Aaron: Johnny Cash with Neil Young and Ben Keith

Tony: Big contrast with the fun and buzz of Ringo’s version, and really, throwing in the bell chime as a prelude to each new line is a bit obvious, but I suppose when it is Christmas that is what everyone wants.

I think I’ll go back and play Ringo’s version again.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues



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