‘Little Drummer Boy’ is one of the definitive Christmas songs. Part of its charm lay in how the track manages to toe the line being both traditional and contemporary. There are countless versions of the festive number, most famously perhaps is Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s bizarre duet. However, no other version of the song contains the heart and soul which Johnny Cash and Neil Young crammed into their take on the festive classic.
The track wasn’t released with any great fanfare at the time and was, in fact, a hidden gem on Ben Keith’s 1994 festive record, Seven Gates: A Christmas Album. Keith, who sadly passed away while staying at Young’s North Carolina ranch in 2010, was the former Buffalo Springfield’s right-hand man and the two of them had one hell of a wild musical journey together that spanned decades.
Keith and Young’s relationship began when the multi-instrumentalist first worked with him in 1971 on the seminal Harvest album. The two were introduced together by the producer Elliot Mazer, who found him in Nashville and asked him to be a last-minute session musician on the record. After that first meeting, little did Young and Keith know the places that their friendship would take them to over the next 40-years.
However, while Keith was Neil Young’s go-to creative man, he was also much more than that. Some of the names that he worked with across his esteemed career include the likes of Todd Rundgren, Lonnie Mack, The Band, Blue, David Crosby, Graham Nash, J. J. Cale, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Ringo Starr. With a catalogue of collaborators that he’d built up as contacts over his career, calling in friends for his Christmas album wouldn’t be a difficult task.
Remarkably, this cover is the only time that Johnny Cash and Neil Young have ever collaborated, with Keith being the man that we all owe thanks to for this marvellous mixing of worlds. That said, this moment wasn’t the only time that their stars aligned. Young’s performance on the Johnny Cash show in 1971, in which he performed gorgeous renditions of ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ and ‘Journey Through the Past’, embedded him into the show’s folklore.
Cash was a fan of Young, so much so that he covered his timeless track, ‘Heart of Gold’ on his 2003 posthumous boxset, Unearthed. His cover of the number contains extra gravitas thanks to Cash’s growling vocal and the weight of emotion that comes from knowing about his impending mortality.
While both Neil Young and Johnny Cash may not be great singers in the traditional sense, there are notes that both men would never attempt. When these two forces collide on ‘Little Drummer Boy’, the result is effortlessly beautiful.