Subversive Carols: Little Drummer Boy

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“The Little Drummer Boy” by Katherine Kennicott Davis

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born 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 the 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.

My first church music performance was “The Little Drummer Boy.” At the time I was in fourth grade and I played the snare drum while my dad sang and played guitar. Of course I was nervous so I wanted to look nice and wore a festive tie, just in case I messed up the rhythm. Everything went well and I haven’t stopped playing music in church. Trying to pick on version that I find to be my favorite is difficult since there are over 220 versions. Here’s a new version by Pentatonix.

Upon looking into “The Little Drummer Boy,” I found no history in the anti-war movement or even being overtly political. Originally it was titled “Carol of the Drum” written for chorale groups in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. So let’s take a look at the lyrics:

The song itself holds many assumptions about the Christmas narrative. Clearly, the songwriter had in mind Matthew’s Gospel, since his Gospel is the only one that includes the Magi. In the song, the Magi ask the drummer boy to accompany them as they bring their finest gifts. Our first radical eruption comes by way of “a new born king.” A king who has just been born does not have power. He can’t speak, act in an intelligent way, or think cogently. Everything the king does is done through the will of his mother.

Second, why would these Magi bring their finest gifts to a newborn king who cannot appreciate them? This is not wise, but wasteful. These Magi are trying to gain honor and respect through such an act and upholding the status quo.

Now we arrive to the little drummer boy. He tells the king-babe that he is young, poor, and without any gifts for him. Let’s pause here, the little drummer talks to the little baby? His breath is wasted. When he asks if he can play his drum for him, it is not the child who responds, but his mother. We should too acknowledge that Jesus is never named. The only person in the carol named is Mary!

Then, when the tiny drummer plays his drums for the baby, the surrounding community contributes to it. The drummer’s small gift grows vastly when he begins to play. The ox and lamb are essentially playing the kick drum. Mary both gives a nod for him to play then too enjoys it by continue nodding to the beat. And the baby-king smiles for the drummer.

The most important point in this song is that everyone is enjoying the drumming. The Magis gifts are forgotten. It is the presence of the drummer and his song rather than the presents of the Magi. It is not the consumption of gifts that fulfills the king-baby, but through the presence of others. This song thus mocks the Magis for their gifts, and upholds the drummer for his gift that is not seen as precious as the gifts of the Magi.

little drummer


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