I strongly suspect that the 6th century Christian theologian Benedict of Nursia was completely tone deaf. Its the only way I can explain why his Rules of Saint Benedict left Christianity trying to tap its toes to the monophonic Gregorian Chant – lavishly described as a melody with no harmony. This was music invented to pacify the spirit, almost to put it to sleep, to pledge devotion with no emotion - and in Latin, which limited its popularity. It would take another 800 years, until Francis of Assisi, for Christianity to break free from its acoustic prison.
Phillippe de Vitry is the man responsible. He was a 14th century poet and musician, and evidently in his spare time the Bishop of Meaux. He could afford to spread himself thin because there just wasn't that much music to know in 1350. Syncopation and Baroque pop had yet to be invented. But Phillippe was also credited with the Ars Nova, or the “new technique” for writing music, although I suspect Phillippe was more of a Phil Spector than a Brian Wilson in this regard. Anyway, the primary new idea in “Ars” was to combine folk tunes with bible stories, a perfect fit considering how many whores with hearts of gold and cheating alcoholic husbands filled the sacred texts. And like The Beach Boys, the Ars advocated above all else, harmony. Western music begins with the Ars Nova, including our subject here, Christmas Carols, and one choral in particular.
The Motown of the early Christmas song was medieval France, and the 14th century Chubby Checker was Chretien de Troyes, using the refrain and verse style as advocated by the Ars Nova. Chretien's hard driving lyrics for his “Legands of King Arthrur” made people want to get up on their feet and move, in a sort of communal “twist”, the circle dance or Bransles, called a carol. And just like disco, the name of the dance would label the entire genre of music. In the absence of recordings, Chretien's music was preformed by traveling minstrels, who would sing the verse, while the simple refrains (also called “the burden”), was usually something like “Fa la la, la la,”. This could even be sung by the village idiot, thus avoiding the Mick Jagger mumbled lyrics problem. Of course when the top 1% held a party, they were not required to sing along. That would have been undignified, particularly if they couldn't sing well. So, they hired somebody else to sing for them, thus inventing girl groups and boy bands – the choir.
We should still be singing the mega-hits written during this golden age of Christmas music, when songs like “That Was My Woo”, by the artist formally known as Robert Faiyrfax, ruled the top 40 charts, but we aren't, at least not in English. In fact we have little record (except Fairfax's two beat rhythms) of the exciting English plainsong tunes from the Golden Age of Christmas because at the beginning of the 17th century came the biggest buzz-kill in Christmas history, an English religious fanatic named Oliver Cromwell and his band, the Puritans. They outlawed Christmas and dancing entirely, and burned every page of music they could lay their anti-aria hands on. It was as if Mr. Scrooge had turned pyromaniac after being left in charge of the office Christmas party. Not much was left.
After the Reformation stuffed the Puritans back into their music-less box, English Christmas started again, from scratch. The first reborn popular hit was “The Wassail Song”, which was not much of Christmas carol, since it starts, “Here we come a-wassailing, Among the leaves so green”. Leaves have not been green in England during December since the island was a lot closer to the equator, about 240 million years ago. So the Carol Kings and Paul McCartneys of the 18th and 19th centuries began looking for tunes and lyrics in those places the Puritans had not reached - France.
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” was translated from its original French in 1816, and sung to the tune which would later be used for “Angles We Have Heard on High”. And then there is the cheerful, “Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle!”, or “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella!” All these France to English carols were huge hits and even more profitable because there were no royalties to pay. In music circles this whole sale theft from dead writers is referred to as “adaptation”.
And it took a politician, Davies Gilbert to recognize the legal advantages of that. In 1822 he published a collection of previously French carols, and the flood gates were opened. Over the next decade “The First Noel” and “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” were rescued from France to be published in English for free. And then in 1840 the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert from Germany, revealing to English “adapters” a new source. In fact, German sources became so popular that the original Protestant Martin Luther was credited with writing “Away In A Manger”, but that was just a marketing gimmick. And by the end of the 19th century, German “adaptations” had been sucked dry, and tune hungry carol composers were forced to look farther east. And, it turned out, to the west, as well.
Katherine Kennicott Davis was born on the cusp of this shift in searching, in 1892 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised a Methodist, and composed her first piece of music at 15. She studied at Wesley College in Massachusetts, and in Paris with the extraordinary Nadia Boulanger. She then made Massachusetts her home, teaching music at the girl's Concord Academy. And in 1939 she “adapted” the traditional Welsh hymn called “Ash Grove”, originally written in 1802. She wrote new lyrics and relabeled it. “Let All Things Now Living”, AKA ” The Thanksgiving Song”. It proved to be a minor hit, encouraging her to continue looking. In a collection of traditional Czech carols, she found the rhythmic “Rocking Carol”. ( All Things Living), and her skills and talents discovered in this intricate melody the core of her next hit, a lead soprano with an alto harmony tenor and base - with keyboard for rehearsal only – which Katherine titled “The Carol of the Drum.”
I need to mention here, that Katherine appears to have been, as she was raised, a perfect Victorian lady. She humbly listed her name on the published sheet music as “C.R. W. Robinson”, since even in 1941 women were not expected to have public achievements. She had published “Let All Things” under the name “John Cowley”. In fact most of the 600 songs she wrote were originally published under various false names, to disguise her sex. I get the feeling Katherine was always more comfortable in hiding, and she would later claim the melody for “Carol of the Drum” came to her while she was trying to take a nap. Or, maybe it really did.
And it was now that the economics of the music industry took Katherine's song out of her hands. In 1955 “The Carol of the Drum” was recorded by the Von Trapp Family Singers, of “Sound of Music” fame. The Austrian immigrants retired shortly there after, and the song went no where until 20th Century Fox Records contracted with Harry Simeone to record a Christmas album of choir music. Simeone liked Katherine's tune, but he felt he could improve it. And so he did. He did enough of a re-write that he felt the song should be renamed, and when the Harry Simeone Choral group released their album “Sing We Now of Christmas” just before Christmas 1958, the new title of Katherine's adapted carol was “The Little Drummer Boy”.
It literally rocketed to the top of the charts, the “single”, a sort of vinyl MP3 download (for those of you born after 1990) went number one with a bullet. As Katherine herself put it, her little song was “done to death on radio and TV". In 1963 Fox re-released the album but re-titled it “The Little Drummer Boy; A Christmas Festival”. Again it went to number one. The song was covered by everybody from Bing Crosby and the Beverly Sisters to Marlene Dietrich and the Royal Scots Guards. By 1962 it was one of the top 40 Christmas songs, and it has remained there ever since. Quite an accomplishment for a shy lady like Katherine. (Little Drummer Boy)
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.
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