The Little Drummer Boy: A Story of Humanity & Kindness
Keats’ The Little Drummer Boy Hits All The Right Beats
Okay, I’ll admit it – I have a real soft spot for the song, “The Little Drummer Boy.” Some of you may cringe every time you hear it, and if you’ve been walking around stores this holiday season you’ve probably heard any number of the hundreds of versions by different artists – some rocking, some soulful, and some just overly synthesized and dramatic. But I can’t help it, the song has drummed its way into my heart ever since I was a little girl. The simple lyrics, potent imagery, and rhythmic beat pull me right into the essence of the song’s story, which for me revolves around the spirit of giving, shared experience, and the power of music to transcend language, race, religion, and economics.
Though I always associated the song with Christmas and the birth of Jesus, I never thought of it as a “religious” song. My experience with the song has always been more about humanity and kindness. There’s a child-like wonder to it, embedded in the child’s perspective, the presence of animals, and the honesty of emotion. The rhyme, rhythm, and repetition in the lyrics and in the constant drumbeat of “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” have always pulled me into the song’s story. And all of this makes “The Little Drummer Boy” ideal to put into book format for young children. My favorite illustrated version is by Ezra Jack Keats, published by Macmillan in 1968. Keats brings the song alive, fills it with patterned, graphic collage and muted hues of paint. He gives faces to the characters and places them in an emotive, desert landscape with a moody sky that changes throughout the span of the day and reflects the breadth of the boy’s emotions. We meet the little drummer boy at the beginning of the book. He is barefoot, and clothed in a simple tunic and hat. His drum and his sticks are his only possessions, as he follows behind kings who are laden with gifts and dressed in fine robes. And yet already there is something special about the boy as seen in the two birds that accompany him. When he arrives at the stable, a baby reaches out a hand. And though the baby is surrounded by expensive gifts, the little drummer sings, “I am a poor boy too.” And that one little word -“too”- embodies a shared experience, and connects the only two children in the story. The boy explains he has no gift to bring “fit to give a king.” And here on this page, we sense the boy’s sadness, as he is surrounded by a sky of gray blue, alone with his drum and the echo of “pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.”
Maybe it is the feel of the sticks in his hand or the weight of the drum on his shoulder, or the pulse of the drumbeat in his body, but the boy realizes he does have a gift, a gift of music. As he asks the baby, “Shall I play for you,” the sky turns yellow and the two birds swoop joyously in anticipation. The little drummer boy’s gift is pure and full of heart, without ulterior motive or expectation. And when he plays upon his drum, even the animals dance. The ending image shows the silhouettes of the little drummer boy and the parade of animals looking after him against a peach and purple sky. The final emotion is rich in happiness and gratitude, his gift indeed fit for a king.
“The Little Drummer Boy” reminds me again and again that small kindnesses and heart-centered giving embody the spirit of Christmas, and how music can bring us together, reach across our differences to the shared experience of being human. As a parent, the song bears another meaning too. It reminds me of the royalty dwelling in my own home – my children. How I need to honor them with unconditional love, and how thankful I am for the gift of their open hearts and joyful exuberance.
Peace to you, and to all who share our Earth. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.
The Little Drummer Boy Board Book, words and music credited to Katherine Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone in 1958, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. Published by Macmillan, New York, 1968, reissued by Viking in 2000. – ISBN: 978-0-670-06282-9 (board book format, 2007)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.