Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Little Drummer Boy

It seems that this Christmas I can't get away from renditions of The Little Drummer Boy.  Here is the one I enjoyed most, from Walk Off the Earth.

I don't really know what's with the dogs.  If you prefer something more traditional here's an a capella version by Pentatonix.

In case you haven't had it drummed into you by years of repetition over shopping centre sound systems and in Christmas concerts and pageants, the lyric goes like this:

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 honour 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 a king, pa rum 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.

In our culture, Christmas has become the season for sentimentality.  We cover our houses and offices with shiny decorations.  We send each other cards with hopeful messages inside.  We feel extra compassion for the poor, putting on special meals for poor families and giving their kids presents.  When tragedies happen, as they have this December, they take on an extra poignancy for us for their potential to ruin the peace and goodwill we expect at this time of year.

Children's songs fit right into the mix.  We hear Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Twinkle Twinkle and even, if we are lucky, Away in a Manger.  Christmas has, for many of us, become something for children, and as adults a way for us to recover our lost childhood, our lost innocence.  It is the only time of the year adults are allowed to wear funny hats.

The Little Drummer Boy is perfect for a 21st century Christmas.  It features a child, it's very sentimental and it certainly appears innocent.  But I couldn't shake the question - who was this drummer, and what was he doing there?

The song was written in 1941 by US composer and music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, under the title "Carol of the Drum".  She suggested it was based on a Czech carol, but no-one seems to have been able to identify a source so we have to think that its creation was largely her own work.  Davis composed for children's choirs and ensembles so she wrote a simple, catchy tune and a lyric that children could relate to.  It began to reach a wider audience in 1955 when it was recorded by the Trapp Family Singers and since then it's been re-recorded by every man and his dog. Even David Bowie apparently had a go at it.

Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941, so if Davis's pupils gave this song its first outing in Christmas of that year its insistent onomatopoeia would have accompanied the marching of soldiers' feet and the quickened beat of American hearts as they prepared for a long and bloody war.  This is more than appropriate - it was almost certainly deliberate - because its central character is a child soldier.

Boy drummers were common in all the armies of the early- and mid-19th century, after which they were replaced by boy buglers.  They didn't generally carry firearms because the rifles of the time were too heavy and had too much recoil for a child to handle.  Nor was their job simply to accompany the soldiers as they marched on the parade ground.

Drums were used for signalling in battle. The noise of a full scale conflict was too great for the officers to shout, and in poor visibility flags and signals wouldn't do the job, so armies used a rhythmic code.  Each rhythm meant a different thing - attack, retreat, regroup, parley, etc.  The drummers would be stationed at intervals just behind the battle lines, where they could pick up and pass on the signal from the commanding officer.

They were favourite subjects of sentimental art in the 19th century, the combination of innocence and heroism appealing to Victorian sentimentality.  They also had a special place in the folklore of the American Civil War, active on both sides of the conflict.  Officially there were age limits but these were routinely ignored.

One of the most famous of these Civil War drummers was John Clem, According to his own story, he ran away from home at the age of 9 and applied to join a number of Union Army regiments before being finally accepted by the 22nd Michigan despite his age.  By the age of 12 he had already been promoted to sergeant and he finally retired as a Brigadier General in 1915, the last serving Civil War veteran.  He is said to have been wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and have shot a Confederate colonel in the Battle of Chickamunga with a cut-down musket made especially for him.

Of course many of the tales about Clem and other Civil War drummer boys are more folklore than history.  Clem seems to have been the kind of man who never let the truth interfere with a good story.  However, they do have an historical core.  There were indeed boy drummers around the world, many of them were very young, and many were wounded or killed.  Even though most did not handle arms they were definitely in danger, and if they were not physically wounded they would still have witnessed unspeakable horrors and been traumatised for life.

So here he is in 1941, on the brink of the war that would bring about the murder of 6 million Jews and end with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: a child soldier, traumatised and perhaps bleeding from war, standing desperately before Jesus and Mary and offering the one thing he can do, play a signal on his drum.  I wonder, what did he signal?  Did he sound the charge to summon the Messiah to battle?  Was it the retreat, or the signal to regroup?  Or did he beat the request for parley, hoping to hear the same signal acknowledged from the other side of the lines as the guns fell silent? 

How would Jesus have responded?  The song tells us only that he smiled, accepting the child's gift but perhaps also acknowledging that his signal would be honoured, that his prayers and desires would be fulfilled in due time.

Of course the infant Jesus could not yet speak, but what would the adult Jesus have said?  I like to think that, lover of the prophecies of Isaiah as Jesus was, he may have replied with the words from Isaiah 2:3-4.

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

May we all have peace this Christmas, and in Christmases to come.

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