Johnny Cash, probably the biggest and most influential country star of the 20th Century (or at least the second most important, for those who consider Hank Williams the most important), recorded four Christmas albums in his life, but his first Christmas record was a 7” single. On the A-side, it featured his version of the song 'The Little Drummer Boy'. The B-side was a non Christmas Cash original, 'I'll Remember You'. The single was recorded by Cash a year after he had left Sun Records for Columbia Records, and it was released for Christmas 1959. It did quite well, as it rose up to 64 in the Billboard Pop Charts. One year later, it also charted in the Billboard Country Charts, reaching 24 as highest position. Cash included the song also on his first Christmas album. 'The Christmas Spirit', that was released in 1963.
The song itself already had a long, and somewhat obscure history, although the first recorded version only dated back 4 years earlier than the Johnny Cash version. The song was written by St. Joseph, Missouri, classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980) in 1941 and was originally titled 'Carol Of The Drum'. The song was based on a traditional Czech carol and Davis published it as a song for amateur and girls' choirs. The manuscript was set as a chorale, the tune in the soprano with alto harmony, while tenor and bass parts produce a drum rhythm, and an added keyboard accompaniment 'for rehearsal only'. Although many people have tried to trace the original Czech carol the tune is based on, so far no one has succeeded. Still, it was Katherine Davis herself who claimed that the tune was based on a Czech carol, so there is no reason to doubt this is indeed the case. Katherina Davis was not exactly new to the songwriting business, as she was the composr of more than 600 hymns and songs for choirs.
They were right, as both the album and the song were a big hit. The song was released as a single at the end of November 1958, and rose to 13 in the Billboard Pop Charts. In fact, the single scored in the charts for 5 years in a row, from 1958 to 1962. In 1963, the album was rereleased under the title 'The Little Drummer Boy: A Christmas Festival', which shows how popular the song had become. Another proof of the popularity of the song is that the Jack Halloran Singers re-released their 1957 Christmas album in 1959 with a new title: 'The Little Drummer Boy'.
Johnny Cash was one of the first of many other artists to record the song, one year after the Harry Simeone Singers had turned it into a hit. On the label of the 7”, that was put out by Columbia Records, the song was only credited to 'Simeone', again underlining how much the song had become identified with Harry Simeone, and how fast original songwriter Katherine Davis had been forgotten.
The song has six short couplets. The lyrics are very simple and straightforward, and tell the story of a poor boy who does not have a gift for Jesus, but plays his drum for him. In the first two couplets, the poor boy is addressed by what appear to be the three wise men, on their way to Jesus, to bring him gift, to join them ('Come they told me'). In the third couplet, the boy himself stands before Jesus, and tells him he is poor, like Jesus is ('Baby Jesus, I am a poor boy too') and has no gift to bring. The he asks if he may play his drum for him, instead. He gets the approval from mother Mary ('The Mother Mary nodded') and the boy plays his drum ('I played my best for Him'). And Jesus likes it: 'Then He smiles at me – me and my drum', as the song concludes. In most early (and also many later) versions, there are barely any instruments used in the recording – it's mostly voices, who sing both the lyrics and do the rhythm – the rhythm, that resembles the drum of the poor drummer boy.
Johnny Cash' version does differ from the version of the Harry Simeone Chorale in the instrumentation. It does have the 'tingling bell' that is sounded several times in the song, although not as many times as in the Harry Simeone version. Together with the tingling bells, a simple guitar stroke can be heard through most of the song. And instead of voices doing the drum rhythms, the Johnny Cash version has a real drum sound, a Indian tom-tom, which gives it a bit of a tribal feel. It is funny to know that a few years later, Johnny Cash became very interessed into native Indian culture, also starting to use this influence in his music. To echo the female 'pa dum da dum'-chorus, some light piano keys are included. The light chorus and piano keys contradict with the bass-baritone voice of Johnny Cash. Instead of singing the lines, it is almost as if he is declamating the words, which makes him sound like a preacher from the deep south, who warns his parish members for all bad things the future is going to hold for them. It gives the song a much darker sound than the light Harry Simeone Chorale-version.
In that way, the Johnny Cash version fits in well with the personality of its interpreter: on one side 'the man in black', the angry outlaw who did not want to fit in, with his drinking habits, drug taking, his temper and restlessness and with the weight of his sins resting heavy on his shoulders; on the other side the devote christian with a strong love for God and an evenly strong longing for a quiet family live with his wife and kids. The tension between these two sides of Cash can be felt in the song. Just as the little drummer boy, he felt he was not worth to come before the Lord, but at the same time, he felt the Lord would always welcome him, as Mary and Jesus welcomed the poor boys' drumming. The later Christmas albums of Johnny Cash and the annual Christmas TV special he did for CBS throughout the 1970s would only show the God-loving, family man-part of his personality (his second Christmas album was even called 'Christmas with the Johnny Cash Family'), and because of that, miss the sharp edge and danger hat makes Johnny Cash best work stand out. In his version of 'The Little Drummer Boy', both sides are present, which is what makes it such a strong version of this song. As also Christmas has two sides – it is not only a joyful celebration, but it also give hope to those who are doing not so well, and are longing for better times.
Listen to the song on Youtube: