Little Drummer Boy

 In Article

‘Tis the season to be jolly?

It’s Christmas and I love the carols. I have quite a few favourites: O Holy Night, Once in Royal David’s City and the all time favourite Stille Natcht Heilige Natcht. These are all songs recounting the story of Jesus or celebrating his birth. Then, of course, there are the more modern ones, like Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland and Let It Snow which in the tropics and southern hemisphere are just odd but we play them loudly anyway because it’s Christmas. However, there is one other that I have always found deeply meaningful and confronting, especially when sung by a boy or a boys’ choir: Little Drummer Boy.

The original title of the song was Carol of the Drum, written by Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American music teacher and composer in 1941, and made famous by the Trapp Family Singers. The song was apparently based on a Czech traditional song.

The romantic side of the song really is about a poor boy invited by the Magi to present himself before the baby Jesus, ie, the God-King. The boy has nothing to offer, no gold, frankincense, nor myrrh but bedraggled himself and a drum. However, the boy gives what he has, a song, a rhythm. In fact it is all he possesses. In many ways, it is a lovely story. ‘The ox and lamb kept time’ and ‘Mary nodded’ her approval and he ‘played my drum for Him’, as he ‘played my best for Him’. Most of all, the baby Jesus accepted the gift, for ‘He smiled at me’. It is here that I am reminded often of the parable of the woman with two coins.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on. (Mark 12:41-44)

It is hard sometimes, in the midst of all the rejoicing, the feasting, the gifts, the goodwill, to hear the call to remember those with little, who have nothing to celebrate as they struggle to survive, who are in situations and environment beyond their control. What also strikes me is the beat of the song. It is not a saccharine tune that flows and makes one feel all gooey and warm within. It is a military beat. I recognise it; I was in a school military band all those years ago. I know it; I have seen paintings of drummer boys leading or amidst armies in 19th century paintings. The drum was a tool for communicating the commands of the officers, or manoeuvre, or for strategising on the battlefield. A call to arms. A call to exterminate. A call to retreat. The boys, ranging from 14-18 years old, were invariably portrayed as innocent looking mascots for the adults. If they had been fearful in reality, they were brave because they had to be steadfast. They were the lynchpins in the thick of a battle. These boys were also soldiers and they would fight if they had to.

That is what I see and hear with the Little Drummer Boy. The one who gives everything because he bequeaths all he had to live on. But he also wore the uniform of violence and was the mascot of killing machines. An innocent child standing before another in the manger. The first relaying commands of war inflicting, perhaps, man’s inhumanity to man. The second whose mission of mercy, pity, peace and love, challenges tyranny in whatever form, would ultimately lead to his hanging from a tree. Both were fighting for king and country but of drastically different visions. The first to accumulate wealth and power, the second to sell all that one has, give to the poor and then follow a path to access a frighteningly different form of power, a radically different way to exercise power. What gift would be fit for what king?

When migrant labourers in our society riot and we call for the full weight of the law upon them, to what beat do we march? We attribute the cause to that old devil called alcohol because sending a goat to die for our sins is easier than having the blood of the lamb on our door posts. When we give to the poor to assuage our consciences but fail to ask how and why they are poor and kept poor, to what beat do we march? Better yet, define the poverty out of existence and always compare ourselves in such a way that ‘our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous’ (King Lear, 2:4, l 261-2).

A sweet, hummable tune framed by a military rhythm. To what beat do we march?
‘And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’
Tyger Tyger, William Blake ~

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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