Lyric Analysis: The Little Drummer Boy

Full disclosure, for this analysis I listened to three different versions of the song.  One by Neil Diamond, one by New Kids on the Block, and one by Harry Connick Jr.  I wholly hope not to listen to two of those versions again.  Maybe ever.  But the third was excellent.

Lyric Analysis: The Little Drummer Boy

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum

A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum

So if you know the essential scriptural Christmas story at all you’ll immediately recognize the ‘they’ as likely being a celestial chorus.  How do I know?  Because in Luke 2: 8 - 12 it says “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  This is why the little drummer boy, while not strictly biblical himself, is often portrayed with a lamb at his side.  He was probably a young shepherd who, you know, brought along his drum to soothe the sheep to sleep at night.  

Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum

To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,

Luke doesn’t actually say that the shepherds brought gifts to the infant Jesus.  Scripture says they did in fact find him and then afterwards spread the word about the encounter.  That’s it.  The gift-givers of the Christmas story were the Magi, or the three wise men, the ones who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby.  But songwriting is not an exact science and creative liberties are frequently taken so sure, the shepherds brought gifts.  Maybe a lamb.  Maybe a wool throw.  Possibly a boy with a drum.  

rum pum pum pum,

rum pum pum pum,

This is a spoken word interpretation of a boy playing a drum.  Which I am not sure is entirely accurate.  I have never heard a drum sound like a soft pum-pum.  It’s more like a BANG-BANG or THUMP-THUMP but ‘pum’ rhymes with ‘drum’ and therein lies the entire narrative thrust of the song.  He’s a drummer boy, he has a drum, it says pum, sometimes it says rum (presumably to numb the headache), and there’s a baby.  

So to honour Him, pa rum pum pum pum,

When we come.

Does that honour a King?  Is drumming a widely-recognized sign of royal appreciation?  Do British citizens drum as the Queen passes by in parades?  

Pum pum pum pum

pa rum pum pum pum pum pum pum

pa rum pum pum pum pum pum pum

pa rum pum pum pum pum pum ahh

It’s perhaps notable that of the three artist’s versions I listened to, none of them sang this part of the song.  Harry Connick Jr. has an actual drum play a rat-ta-tat-tat in this part but then he’s also backed by a hearty jazz band so he’s not going for biblical authenticity.  New Kids on the Block have a really slow drum beat accompanied by what sounds like a triangle and, weirdly, a harp at this part.  The 80s was an interesting time, musically speaking.  And Neil Diamond has what sounds like a synthesizer swell.  Of course he also sounds like he’s saying “ba rum ba bum bum bum” the entire time so make of that what you will.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum

I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum

What?  I mean... okay.  But are drums really cheap?  I suppose homemade ones maybe.  Does this kid think the baby Jesus is poor because he’s in a stable?  That is some situational assumption at work right there.  The kid has no way of knowing what sort of life Mary and Joseph led at home when Inns weren’t overflowing due to inconvenient census taking and stables were the new Motel 6.  Additionally, if an entire host of angels announced this baby’s birth I would think assuming the child is ‘poor’ is misguided.  But whatever.  Fine, you’re both poor.  Let’s rock.

I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum

That's fit to give a king, pa rum pum pum

To be entirely fair, none of the gifts except the gold really sound “fit for a King”, you know?  I mean everyone assumes frankincense and myrrh were very valuable oils but they are actually resins used primarily in the making of perfumes and incense.  Even if we assume the refined versions are what the Magi brought, what use does a baby have for high end perfume or incense?  Well I guess the incense could be handy in the stable.  And arguably both are more useful than a drum solo.  But nobody in this story really has their finger on the pulse of what to gift a newborn and/or royalty, is what I’m saying.

rum pum pum pum,

rum pum pum pum,

Or rum ba bum bum, as you please.  Neil likes his drum to sound lazy and vaguely flirty, you see.

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,

On my drum?

Were I Mary my answer would be a hearty “no” right about now.  A drum solo for a newborn?  I do not have children myself but I really can’t imagine any new parent who is just chomping at the bit for some random kid to show up at their infant’s cradle and bash out a lengthy drum tribute.  To those who are about to rock, we shush you - we just got that baby to sleep.  We are exhausted.  We haven’t slept more than an hour all told.  The cows stink.  The goat tried to eat the baby.  Like, a drum is the last thing we need.

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum

But, see, Mary nods.  Thus proving that those of us who don’t have kids should just keep our yaps shut around parents because what do we know?  In the end, maybe newborns really do like drum solos.  Babies are a mystery.

The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum

In my mind’s eye this has always resembled the bonfire where Prince Caspian finally meets all the ‘Old Narnians’ and dryads and fauns and dwarves and badgers all have a big dance circle in the forest to traditional Narnian music.  I don’t want to be corrected if I’m wrong.  Let me have my vision.  

I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum

I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,

I will say this: at least this kid understands the gravity of the scene.  He recognizes this isn’t just any baby he’s playing for.  He’s got his game face on.  He’s giving it his all.  Drum on, little drummer boy.

rum pum pum pum,

rum pum pum pum, (pum pum pum part)

There are a lot of pum-pums missing from all three versions I listened to so either the lyrics are just tidily trimmed in modern interpretations or this section is actually intended for instruments.  A drum - which makes the most sense but is a very literal take on things - or a synthesizer or a triangle or a harp.  Whatever tickles your musical fancy so long as you play it to your utmost in keeping with the song’s theme of effort for royalty.

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum

Me and my drum.

Or, alternate reading, he smiled because the drum solo was finally over.

 

- Corinne Simpson