Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Dance Party: A Boy And His Drum

This holiday Dance Party takes place at Arlington Cemetery.  And also the White House.
It took me a while to become a fan of Christmas music. 

Sure, I suppose I liked it as a kid, but I quickly lost any affection for carols when I got a job in the Sears Complaint Department in my freshman year of college.  My store was located at a mall rather pompously called the Northridge Fashion Center, and for the first few years I worked there, we actually had a department which sold pianos and organs. 
You might think holiday music
played on the organ would be fun.
You'd be wrong.

The Christmas music, which back then began the day after Thanksgiving, was inescapable, and even after that organ dept shut down, the Muzak in the store, and the Muzak in the mall itself, was unrelenting.  I worked at that Sears, part-time, for a whopping 15 years, so by the time I quit, I had had it with malls in general and Christmas music in particular.

Vince Guaraldi renamed my favorite song
"My Little Drum." His jazzy adaptation
is not heard onscreen, but it helps
fill out this soundtrack album.

Ah, but it was only a little while before, like one of those sheep being watched by shepherds by night, I was led back into the fold.  I have a fairly substantial collection of holiday recordings (well, four or five dozen), which I break out soon after Halloween (yes, I'm a Christmas Creeper) and keep on rotation until New Year's.

I have a favorite Christmas song, and my affection for this ditty can be traced directly to this guy:
The Little Drummer Boy began its life as a song, but it eventually followed in the footsteps of Rudolf and Frosty and became a TV special.  As scripted by Romeo Muller, it may not have been ready for prime time.  Muller had huge success transferring Rudolf from turntable to TV, but he went considerably darker in tone with this one.  Our hero is orphaned by a gang of thieves, who slaughter his parents and burn down the farm.  Merry Christmas, kids!  After some nasty misadventures with a carnival owner, the Boy, biblically named Aaron, follows That Star to Bethlehem, hoping to heal his injured lamb (yes, it's a story about a boy and his sheep, alert the fetishists).  He has no gift to give the newborn messiah except a song on his drum, which does the trick.  Bah rum ba bum bum.
After airing The Little Drummer Boy annually for years, NBC began to get complaints that the story reflected racist, anti-Arab values, and I don't disagree with that. 
Jose Ferrar voiced the villain and gave rise to
accusations of racism.  The show included
elegantly smooth narration by Greer Garson.

That may be one reason the program, from the prolific Rankin-Bass studio, is not as fondly remembered as Rudolf and others in their catalogue.  The show is also centered squarely on the religious story of the first Christmas, as opposed to other beloved Christmas specials which focused on reindeer, snowmen, and towns Santa forgot.

I haven't seen this program in many years, and I never hear anyone making an appointment to watch it on TV these days (it is run on ABC Family now).  But the song, which was a hit long before it was translated to television, continues to be one of the most recognizable of Christmas Carols. 
If you hate the Drummer Boy, blame the
Von Trapps. They took a Czech folk song and
turned it into the current tune.

For many years, "The Little Drummer Boy" was recorded strictly by choirs, and truthfully, it sounds a little less silly if a big group is intoning "barumb ba bum bum..."  But once Bing Crosby wrapped his bingle around it, every solo artist on the planet barumped their bum bum with it.  The usual holiday suspects like Johnnie Mathis, Andy Williams, and Rosemary Clooney all took their turn, and Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Glen Campbell, and Johnny Cash soon got into the act.  I can only imagine what the versions by Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, and Ringo Starr sound like.  RuPaul sang it, as did Marlene Dietrich (hers was in German, and who doesn't enjoy a German Christmas song?).  Grace Jones sang it on Pee Wee's Playhouse, and the Animaniacs went back in time and sang it for the baby Jesus, just like our Drummer Boy.
Researching this entry required me to watch many, many versions of "The Little Drummer Boy."  This famous (or infamous) duet on Bing Crosby's final Christmas special almost turned me against my favorite song.  The story goes that Bowie hated the song, but agreed to duet only if he could sing counterpoint with "Peace On Earth."
This very special Dance Party deserves a Very Special Episode, which The West Wing gives us, courtesy of its first season.  A children's choir sings the song as the episode wraps up with a funeral for a homeless veteran. 
The president's secretary Mrs. Laningham also attends the
funeral. In an earlier scene, in her quietly reserved way, she
relates the story of the deaths of her twin sons in Vietnam
on Christmas Eve, 1970.

Aaron Sorkin won an Emmy for writing this episode, and Richard Schiff also won for his performance in it.  This clip reinforces my faith in the ability of music to heighten emotion, and restores "The Little Drummer Boy" to the top of my Christmas Hit Parade.  Happy Hols, everybody!