Interviewed December 13, 1978
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
I made my living for years writing music and can remember
exactly how I happened to write "The Little Drummer Boy". It was
in 1941 and I was taking a nap at my house on Lexington Road when
a new tune kept running through my head and it seemed to me to be
worth working on. So I went downstairs and wrote it out. I wrote
it up in order to not forget the tune. I get the tune first
sometimes a few words along with it but only a few. This time I
knew that somewhere there would be a drum. I've known several
French carols with a drum or fife and drum, one called "Pat, Pat,
Pat" and another "Rah Tah Tah". This must have set me going. The
words came very easily. Then I decided I would have it for a
mixed chorus with no accompaniment and the sopranos and altos
would sing the aria and the basses and tenors would do the
Drumming, I remembered suddenly Ravel's "Bolero", a big orchestra piece, do you remember in the '30s, where the drumming begins very softly and gradually grows loud. The drumming, of course it's real drums and there's a whole orchestra, so it gets louder and louder with the same ta, tatata, tum tum, ta, ta, tum going on and ends with a perfectly stunning noise. Well, I thought I can't have that kind of climax with just voices so I thought I'll have to begin very slowly and gradually fill in notes, the tune will go on just the same speed but the drums will seem to be getting faster and faster. So I did that, I worked it out and I rather liked it. It sounded like a folk song.
I thought well, why not? Where from? Well, why not from Czechoslovakia? Some people think that that's not quite honest but it's done all the time and accepted. For instance, there's that "Shepherd's Farewell" which he said was a very ancient tune with the most complicated, really difficult modulations for the chorus to sing, and he didn't know anything about ancient melodies. So somebody finally went to him and said "Now look here, old man, this is a fake. You made this yourself, didn't you?" And he had to admit that he did. And there were some nice spirituals twenty years ago that everybody sang. Do you know that one called, "Jesus, Jesus rest your head, You has got a manger bed"? You don't remember that one, you're a little too young!
Anyway finally the man who said it was a folk song finally admitted it was his. Then, of course, there is Elizabeth Barrett Browning with all her sonnets from the Portuguese and everybody knows they weren't translations, they were just out of her own heart.
But my tune started life as "The Carol of the Drum", you may know it by a different title now but that's the way it started. I put my name down for the music, this is a little tricky for copyright reasons but I wanted to make it perfectly copyright proof. So I put my name down for the music and the words I put down from a Czech carol. Then I realized I'd need a translator and so I put down translated by C.R.W. Robertson. People say "Well, where did you get that name?" Well, I made it up. I had worked on texts for a schoolbook series and I had done so many texts that I was finally told, "Now will you please get a few pseudonyms so it wouldn't look as if you wrote the whole book." And I was delighted because I didn't want my name all over all those little verses so I got some pseudonyms. I made up some and I used names of deceased grandparents and uncles and they are all registered at ASCAP, which as you know is the agency that contracts performances on the air and pays composers a percentage.
So there it was, all done and signed and it was published by Wood in Boston. And it was first recorded by the Von Trapp Family, you know from "The Sound of Music". That's what they're famous for but they're much more famous for their most beautiful acappella singing before and after they came to this country. A few years later Wood sold the song to Mills, a big New York publisher, I mean sold his whole business not just the song.
Then eighteen years later in December 1959, a friend called me up and said "Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on radio!" I said, "What carol?" She said, "The Little Drummer Boy". Well I didn't ever write a carol called "The Little Drummer Boy". So I tuned on a station, any old station, and there it was, the most beautiful recording I could possibly have imagined. There were about two words different as I found out later and a little music, a few notes changed, but I don't think I noticed it then. And you could hear it somewhere every five minutes and I must admit, it was very exciting and sort of disturbing to me. So I telephoned the station and I said, "That's my carol that you're broadcasting." So they took my name and number and called back and informed me that that was called "The Little Drummer Boy". It was an old carol that had just been discovered and there are about four or five men's names on the composition and a different publisher, but my name wasn't anywhere on it.
The next day I telephoned the editor, Mills in New York and explained what had happened. He hadn't heard but it hit New York very soon and it was plainly a legal matter and I was glad that Mills had a lot of lawyers that I could fall back on. So then began a long legal thing, first they planned a trial, then the lawyer phoned saying that they were planning to send to Czechoslovakia to find the tune. And I remember his ferocious tone when he said "They're bad men!" Well, I figured if they were bad men they could easily find another bad man in Czechoslovakia who for a suitable sum could remember learning the tune at his mother's knee. The lawyer said if it came to trial and I lost because I couldn't prove that I had written the tune unless I had witnesses standing around at the time then I'd lose not only "The Little Drummer Boy" but my "Carol of the Drum". He said we should settle out of court. The men had spent enormous sums on promotion and it seemed to me that it was fair for them to get their part, so it was settled out of court. And that's the end of that part of the chapter.
Now it goes on in both versions, both owned by Mills. Of course, the publisher always owns the music, I don't own the music, he owns it. He's bought it and he pays me royalties on it, this is very obvious but a lot of people don't understand so I thought I would throw it in.
Both versions have gone all over Europe, Japan, South Africa, South America, and it's translated into several languages. I don't think it's been to China or Russia yet, I haven't heard.
And there are a few postscripts also. I've had letters from Czechs or people of Czech decent living in this country and they write and say "That's not a Czech tune, we never heard it." And one of them said, "I always thought 'The Little Drummer Boy' was about the Civil War." And they all want an explanation which I'm willing to give.
Then about a year or so ago, one of the men who was supposed to have written "The Little Drummer Boy" was presented in a large illustrated feature article in a Florida paper. He told how he had written "The Little Drummer Boy" and how I was an old friend and had helped him. The article was picked up in Boston and other large cities and people wrote to ask me about it. I sent to Mills' editor and asked him whether I could write to Mr. Onorati and sass him a little. "Oh, no," says the editor very calmly, "it really does us a great deal of good, it stirs up interest."
Now I haven't said anything about the television themes, do you think I might? Of course, it was very soon made into a cartoon with the Vienna Choir Boys singing the song now and then with a great deal going on in the cartoon. I must say I've never felt happy about the cartoon because it brought in so many ugly things. It had nothing to do with the spirit or feeling of the song but it's gone on every year and ASCAP hears it and I get something for it.
But I think the most fun I had was during the first few years listening to the various television presentations of it on regular television shows like the Bob Hope show would just do the whole thing and they all did it sooner or later. Some of them were very commonplace, some were quite imaginative and there was one especially beautiful one that I can't even describe. It had sort of a feeling of the juggler of Notre Dame, you know the little boy who offers his skill of juggling, which I think must have been in my mind a little from the beginning too. There was a great cross and when you looked at the screen, you were looking at it sideways but with the back towards you so you couldn't see who was on it. It was huge, it went way up above the screen. And in the distance down low on the ground the little boy came, I'm not sure that he was juggling or that he was dancing, but he was offering something to the figure on the cross. It was very beautiful and imaginative.
About the cartoon that's on television every year, I think I might add that as I said I was unhappy about that cartoon because it had so much ugliness in it that had nothing to do with the spirit of what I had done in the song. So finally I wrote a little play myself for adults and children with both speech and singing and using the carol at the end. That made me feel a little better because it kept the spirit of what I tried to say and Mills published it and it's been used quite a lot in schools and churches. It's called "The Drum".