We often pair things that complement each other, that together create something perfect and well balanced. So, when this sense of perfection or symmetry is disrupted by weird pairings such as peanut butter and burgers, it makes us cringe. However, there are some things that, though opposite or contradictory, form an unexpectedly expressive pair. In language, oxymorons give expression to these strange paradoxes. While in English music, it is embodied by Grace Jones’ Christmas carol.
The song in question is ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ that dates back to 1941. Composed by the American classical musician Katherine Kennicott Davis, it talks about a young boy who was summoned by the Magi after the birth of Jesus. Being poor, he didn’t have anything to offer the newborn king and thus decided to play his drums as a tribute: “I played my best for him/ Pa rum pum pum pum/ Then he smiled at me…”
Originally titled as ‘Carol of the Drum,’ the song was speculated to be loosely based on the Czech lullaby ‘Hajej, Nynjej.’ Claire Fontijn the chairperson of Wellesley College’s music department, which was Davis’ alma mater, while talking about the origin of the song in an interview denied any such connections with the lullaby carol. Fontijn said, “[One Day], when she was trying to take a nap, she was obsessed with this song that came into her head and it was supposed to have been inspired by a French song, ‘Patapan.’ And then ‘patapan’ translated in her mind as ‘pa-rum-pum-pum,’ and it took on a rhythm.”
The carol caught the attention of the celebrated Austrian choir group named the Von Trapp family, who first recorded it in 1951. Followed by a slightly different version by Jack Halloran in 1957. However, it was Harry Simeone’s chorale that made the song popular. The single released in 1958, was renamed ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ by Simeone. Unfortunately, the song was falsely claimed to be composed by Onorati and Simeone without giving any credit to Davis or Holloran whose music arrangement they copied.
The list of cover versions of this song is endless. Though each rendition brought in some uniqueness, it was Grace Jones’ cover that drew attention for its unusuality. The Jamaican singer projected an edgy and intimidating image which obviously conflicted with the bright and merry vibe of Christmas carols. A fashion enthusiast and a model, she collaborated with designers like Jean Paul Goude to create a look that was “beautiful and grotesque at the same time” according to Goude. In short, her willfully distorted image didn’t go anywhere near the warm red and green Christmas colours. Even her music was dominated by genres like disco, post-punk, new wave and reggae which were far removed from the serenity of carols.
Naturally, when Jones performed ‘The Little Drummer’ on Pee Wee’s Playhouse TV show in 1988, it shocked the audience.
Appearing in a white and black outfit she bent the festive stereotypes which can be considered as an irreverent move by many. However, from a more liberal point of view, she didn’t try to fit into the traditional mould and made the song her own. She delivered a sassy and more upbeat version which though lacked the tranquillity of the original, well-represented her personality and style. If this combination is a successful one or not is purely subjective.
So, let’s listen to the most debated performance and judge for ourselves.