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Who Sang It Best? "The Little Drummer Boy (Carol of the Drum)"

Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the holidays by ranking cover versions of popular Christmas songs.

Let's look at the classic tune, "The Little Drummer Boy" and rank 14 contenders. Which do you prefer?

Let's look at the classic tune, "The Little Drummer Boy" and rank 14 contenders. Which do you prefer?

A Simple Gift of Musical Talent

What gifts do you bring to the Son of God when you have nothing but your talent for drum playing? The story of the little drummer boy is a beloved Christmas carol written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American teacher and classical music composer. It depicts the summoning of the young boy by the Three Wise Men to the nativity scene. Having no gifts, the impoverished child expresses reluctance, but he offers a simple drum performance as Mary nods approvingly. The holy infant smiles afterward.

Davis based her work upon a Czech song and named it the "Carol of the Drum." The story told in the song also resembles a legend from the 12th century that was retold by the French writer Anatole France. The legend describes how a juggler performs before a statue of the Virgin Mary. In response to his efforts, she either smiles at him or throws him a rose, depending upon which version of the old tale one ascribes to.

Davis's song, "Carol of the Drum" was first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers, the large family whose story inspired the Broadway musical The Sound of Music. However, it found fame when it was subsequently recorded in 1958 by the Harry Simeone Corale. They changed Davis' original line, "the ox and ass kept time" to "the ox and lamb kept time" and renamed the tune "The Little Drummer Boy."

In the years since, the song has been recorded by hundreds of artists. Although it does not mention holidays, snow, Santa, or Christmas trees, "The Little Drummer Boy" has become a perennial Christmas favorite. Recorded in multiple genres, artists have emphasized either the religious aspect or the drums and played it with boisterous excitement or slow deliberation. Listen to the classic song then compare a bevy of contenders before you decide who sang it best.

Who Sang It Best?

With many artists singing the same Christmas tunes, the sleigh has become overloaded. Let's rank them and cross some off the list.

We will begin with the traditional version of the song, and then we'll present a set of 14 contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the traditional artist's style while others are reinterpretations.

Since the traditional song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with the 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:

  • Do you prefer the traditional song or a cover version?
  • Which of the cover versions do you prefer?

"The Little Drummer Boy" by Harry Simeone Chorale (1958)

A classic choir offers a high, vibrant melody that is breathtakingly angelic and it is perfectly paired with the low, steady drumbeat of the masculine pum pum pum vocals. As the song progresses, trumpets and snare drums signal increasing excitement, alongside increasing volume and complexity. Then the song comes to a brief halt, giving way to slow, simple vocals, the contrast demonstrating reverence for the newborn King. Imagine that at that moment the little drummer boy first lays eyes upon Him.

Although not the first to sing this Christmas carol, The Harry Simeone Chorale popularized it and made it a holiday tradition. Their version climbed the Billboard charts seasonally from 1958 to '62. Can any contender beat this well-known favorite? Take a listen then cast your vote!

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1. Cover by Jennifer Nettles (featuring Idina Menzel) (2016)

Between the high energy and exaltations of glee, not a soul in the manger will get any shut-eye when this enthusiastic duo is on hand. However, there's so much joy to be had in this song, who would mind?

Jennifer Nettles, the Grammy Award-winning country star from Sugarland, teams up with Broadway phenom Idina Menzel in this festive, full-volume version of "The Little Drummer Boy." They represent two powerhouse voices who are at their best when they belt with elation, fully embracing the new Christ child as a celebration of the ages. I especially prefer their upbeat interpretation of the song to slower, more solemn renditions, and they get bonus points for creativity. These two are so jubilant they're trippin' on God's love.

2. Cover by Anne Murray (1981)

In this cover, Anne Murray's voice is as resplendent as ever, crisply standing out against a background of vocal drumbeats by a male choir. The Canadian songstress consistently delivers emotional warmth and vocal precision in this unhurried but carefully paced ditty. You might notice that she refers to the "Baby Gesu" in the lyrics, a deviation from other versions.

Murray was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "50 Biggest Adult Contemporary Artists Ever." If you like her sound, her version of Silver Bells is particularly superb.

3. Cover by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (1987)

Notice something? The Virgin Mary is missing from this version of "The Little Drummer Boy," which was recorded by Detroit native and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bob Seger and his band for a special charity album. But let's concentrate instead on all the good stuff that is present in the song.

The classic cover is unusually high spirited, featuring Seger's full, throaty vocals and a saxophone player who makes this a jam session for Jesus. This is a rendition with unexpected gusto, and it's hard not to love it. Seger was a genius for interpreting the tune with such vibrancy.

4. Cover by Pentatonix (2014)

The little drummer boy's jubilation and love for the newborn Christ child overflow in this first-rate, carefully crafted an a capella cover of the classic holiday hymn. From the get-go, Pentatonix beatboxes a drum-like sound, and it draws in the imagination of the listener. (Beatboxing refers to those unusual mouth sounds that are meant to resemble a percussion instrument.) The song begins with muted tones then Pentatonix amplifies and speeds up their vocals, ultimately reaching a crescendo that celebrates the simple gift of giving whatever you can in the spirit of love.

The a capella group first rose to fame in 2011 after taking home the prize in the third season of NBC's competition, The Sing-Off. The quintet has since gained international prominence, Grammy Awards, and several billion YouTube views singing a capella covers of pop and Christmas songs. If you like Pentatonix's sound, another especially good Christmas song by the group is Mary Did You Know?

5. Cover by Leann Rimes (2015)

Country-pop crossover star Leann Rimes' voice is strong and clear in this notably competent version of "The Little Drummer Boy" although the excessiveness of the drums seems to rush her along. The ad nauseam drumming is both rapid and energetic. Its volume needs to be dialed down so that it becomes background music instead of an ever-looming threat to Rimes' vocal spotlight. (Know your role, musicians!) At the end, Rimes provides lots of "rum pum pum pum" vocal filler instead of knowing how to end the song.

Rimes first burst on the country music scene in 1996 at the tender age of 13 and was lauded as the new Patsy Cline. The following year, she became the youngest person to win a Grammy Award and Country Music Association Award.

6. Cover by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (1982)

The crusty old crooner and the 30-year-old androgynous glam rocker make an unlikely pair as they collaborate to achieve one of the most famous holiday duets of all time. Their cover was recorded in 1977 for a Bing Crosby Christmas special only five weeks before the legendary elder singer died of a heart attack.

Because Bowie hated "The Little Drummer Boy," scriptwriters rushed to write a new counterpoint, "Peace on Earth," specifically for him. After less than an hour of rehearsal, the two artists recorded this version. Their lack of chemistry and subpar harmony in the beginning give way to a sublime creation as Crosby sings "The Little Drummer Boy" and Bowie sings "Peace on Earth." Five years later, this version was released as a single and became an international hit.

7. Cover by Josh Groban (2007)

Josh Groban's voice reverberates with energy in this Christmas tune as the soft vocals of a female choir add an angelic flair. There is a steady beating drum beat in the backdrop to accent his vocals. Excitement builds up to peaks of full volume high notes and bagpipes add a Celtic feel.

Groban may be hitting his marks, but unfortunately, the pop-opera star is missing emotional persuasion. He accents the song in some odd places. The tune feels a little hollow, like he's not really feeling it. Groban's version, therefore, seems to be more of an exercise in professional artistry than a channeling of the drummer boy's persona.

8. Cover by Toby Keith (2007)

With hit country songs like "Trailerhood," "Beer for My Horses" and "Red Solo Cup," here's a guy who has spent nearly three decades cultivating an image as a cowboy and proud redneck. However, Toby Keith tones that down during this Christmas tune and plays it straight in honor of Jesus.

Country fans particularly should appreciate the commanding quality of his voice and will likely overlook a rough spot or two, such as the transition near the mention of Mary. Although the background music is overblown, sounding almost Scottish in some portions, overall, Keith delivers a version that is decent enough that it shouldn't be discounted.

9. Cover by Ray Charles (1985)

Hold on to your Christmas stockings and cookies because you'll either love this one or hate it, depending on your tastes in musical genres. Just when I thought I had heard rum pa pum pum in every rendering possible, Ray Charles reimagines the holiday favorite by kicking some old-fashioned soul into it.

Rather than feature a prominent drum, this rendition lets brass instruments do the heavy lifting as background music. Although traditionalists may find it too idiosyncratic for their taste, Charles gets bonus points for both his creativity and for the way he totally feels this song. He ain't just singing it, folks.

The artist that many affectionately called "The Genius" was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." Among Ray Charles's many accolades was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

10. Cover by The Temptations (1970)

There's a struggle going on in this version of "The Little Drummer Boy." The Temptations grapple with whether to paint this song flat and solemn or instead perky (with a dash of funk). They start out on a high note and use upspeak to give the phrase "me and my drum" an unusual inflection, thus drawing attention to the narrator's simple gift. Racing through the lyrics, the group conveys an unsatisfying sense that they are holding something back.

Rolling Stone magazine named The Temptations as one of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." Three songs by this Grammy Award-winning Motown quintet are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll."

11. Cover by Bob Dylan (2009)

Upon winning a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan was described as "a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.... ."

In reality, the sixties counterculture icon usually can't carry a tune in a bucket, and he often mumble-sings. Dylan's performance on this song, therefore, comes as a surprise because he can be understood, and it's not simply because we already know the words.

Supplemented by hushed harmonies and accents of a snare drum, Dylan's vocals are subdued, and there's not a lot of variation to his emotional tenor. However, if his voice is fitting for any Christmas song, it would be this one. The aging folk-rocker's cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" feels like the clinically depressed version, one that actually exceeds excessively low expectations. Not everyone wants their drummer boy feeling a lot of mirth.

12. Cover by FOR KING & COUNTRY (2017)

A frenzied, intense, and nerve-rattling experience that is neither Christmasy nor festive. That's what you get from this Grammy Award-winning Christian rock duo of Australian brothers. Slow but expectant vocals of okayish quality are punctuated by startling bursts of energy. There's a lot more than just a simple boy and his drum in this cover. Instead, it sounds like an army of half-crazed drummers running at you full force. Prepare to be overwhelmed.

13. Cover by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts (1981)

The Godmother of Punk doesn't try to spin this religious but rather emphasizes the drum part of the drummer boy in this ditty. It was released as a track on the same 1981 album as Joan Jett and The Blackhearts' hit singles, "I Love Rock 'n Roll" and "Crimson and Clover."

Jett has been called the hardest working woman in rock music, but with this holiday song, she and the band just seem to be kicking back and having a rockin' good time. Noticeably she rolls her r's and doesn't invest too much effort in her vocals. Then the group speeds up the tempo towards the end of the song, launching into a rock fest in honor of the Baby J. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-honored band goes full tilt with electric guitars—because what would Jesus do?—to deliver a performance that is memorable but not praiseworthy.

14. Cover by Justin Bieber (featuring Busta Rhymes) (2011)

Leave it to Bieber to ruin a song in this way. His cover of "The Little Drummer Boy" is like a regifted fruitcake. You question the gift-giver's sincerity and can't wait for them to turn their head so you can toss it straight in the garbage.

Beebs delivers this disastrous rendition, chock full of noisy, clanging, mechanical sounds. He tries to be artsy in the way he draws out some of his notes to ill effect, and Busta raps some nonsense that includes references to Twitter and his Blackberry. I can picture this racquet waking up the holy infant as Mary cringes and Joseph does a slow head-shake. Then the Beebs and Busta's song just suddenly stops cold, no explanation. So strange.

It's too easy to dismiss Justin Bieber as wrong for Christmas music, however. While he didn't give "The Little Drummer Boy" the effort it deserved, his version of Silent Night is otherworldly. Bieber was discovered in 2007 when he posted his videos on YouTube, and in less than 10 years became one of the world's best-selling music artists, a Grammy Award-winner, and one of the top 10 most powerful celebrities in the world, as named by Forbes magazine.

© 2019 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on March 10, 2020:

justmesuzanne - I had to laugh at your reaction. We all have those songs where we think, "anyone but that artist!"

justmesuzanne from Texas on March 09, 2020:

Just about anybody but "Richie Petrie"! :D I remember seeing that on the Dick Van Dyke show way back in the 1960s (when I was a child myself) and thinking "Oh my! That was a mistake!" I've seen that episode countless times since, and I think the same thing every time!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on February 23, 2020:

Peggy - I'm glad you get something from the background story. I like knowing a little about where the song came from and why it's so important.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 23, 2020:

There are many good renditions of this song, but I would still go with the original. It is interesting how the title of this song has been changed in earlier times. Your background information is always so informative.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 25, 2019:

Cynthia - I'm glad you enjoyed this. I hope your family had a wonderful Christmas!

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on December 24, 2019:

Merry Christmas! My hubby and i listened together tonight-- Christmas Eve. He liked Leann Rimes best. We now know all the words. Giggled at your commentary, especially "the depressive" version by Bob Dylan!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 21, 2019:

Zack Hamra - There are hundreds of covers of this song. That's why I provide a comment section for anyone who readers have strong feelings about. Thanks for chiming in. Merry Christmas.

Zack Hamra on December 21, 2019:

I can’t believe Johnny Cash is not listed here. His version and the David Bowie/Bing Crosby are the best.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on December 19, 2019:

No worries, it is my pleasure to stop here.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 19, 2019:

Luis - Thanks for stopping by.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on December 19, 2019:

I love the version of Josh Groban.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 18, 2019:

Lora - Thank you for stopping by and for your comments. A quality choir is always a beautiful way to present a good Christmas carol. Have a Merry Christmas!

Lora Hollings on December 18, 2019:

I prefer the traditional version by the Harry Simeone Chorale. This is one of my favorite carols of all time, and I think its simplicity and message is what makes it stand out over many other Christmas carols for me. I prefer a choir who sings it without any embellishment and brings its lovely melody out with angelic voices making it even more beautiful. I found the history of this carol fascinating too! Thanks for this background which makes me appreciate this song even more!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 24, 2019:

Luis - Thank you.

Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 21, 2019:

Actually, I know the song however I do not know, who sang.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 20, 2019:

Nithya - Seriously, so interesting! I knew someone had to love him! Thanks for saying so!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on November 19, 2019:

A great selection of artists and a wonderful carol. I love The Little Drummer Boy, my favorite version is by Bob Dylan.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 19, 2019:

Dora - Your secret is safe! Some versions definitely are better than others. Both ability and effort vary considerably. Thanks for stopping by to vote for your favorite!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 18, 2019:

Voting for someone feels like voting against someone else (though it's not so). That makes it hard so it's a good thing that we can vote in secret. It's difficult for anyone not to sing this song very well.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 18, 2019:

Kari - A lot of us don't try new versions. It's fun to listen to other options even if we come back to the original or our tried and true favorite. Thanks for stopping by!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 18, 2019:

Devika - I'm glad you liked this. I appreciate your visit. Have a wonderful week.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 18, 2019:

The original is the best for me. It sounds better your list of songs is an increasing attraction here.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 18, 2019:

I never knew there were so many different versions of this song. I guess I get one Christmas playlist and don't really get to hear the others. My favorite is the original. The Little Drummer Boy was always my favorite Christmas show.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 18, 2019:

Linda L. - Thank you for the kind compliment. We're putting up Christmas decorations earlier than usual this year given that Thanksgiving is coming late. I don't want to get cheated out of some joy. We're starting the process later this week! Hope you're starting to feel the spirit.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 18, 2019:

Bill - Glad you found some remakes that suited your tastes. Hope you're gearing up for a wonderful holiday season!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 18, 2019:

Linda - I'm glad you enjoyed this. I really liked the original as well. Have a great week!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 17, 2019:

This is another enjoyable article. My favorite version of the song is the classic one, but it was fun to listen to the others as well. The song's history is interesting.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on November 17, 2019:

Some excellent renditions, Flourish, but the original will always be my favorite. Of the contenders I really enjoyed Anne Murray. As a kid this was my favorite Christmas tune. Great job.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on November 17, 2019:

Flourish, you've done such a great job of analyzing each of these. If not the original, I have to vote for Ann Murray. Her voice is so angelic and soothing. Save the loud drums and flourish for another song, not the lullaby for a baby. Thanks for another great article. I'm "almost" in the mood for Christmas now.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Clive - Thank you for the visit.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Pamela - I'm happy you found some new versions and surprisingly satisfying versions. That's what it's all about -- stretching boundaries a little. Have a great week!

Clive Williams from Jamaica on November 17, 2019:

I like most of em, gonna have to revisit the songs.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 17, 2019:

I like the majority of these groups or singers, but it is hard not to like the original version the best. I was pleasantly surprised by Anne Murray as I thought I wouldn't like it very well, but I did like her. I also thought Bob Seger was good, and I like him but did not expect him to sing this song very well. Josh Groban has a wonderful voice, but I didn't like his version as much as I thought I would.

This article was a enjoyable to read your comments and to listen to the singers.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

John - How can people not love that one? It's not the slow, traditional style but it's really from the heart. Glad to know you liked this.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Bill - That Canadian lady can really sing, eh? Hope you're doing well.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Eric - The preteens and early teens can be some of the hardest years. Thanks for the story. Do you sing the song now or shy away, I'm wondering?

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Louise - I didn't realize I enjoyed Anne Murray as much as I do until I started on this series. She's retired now but always did a real classy job. Watching the longer videos of Crosby and Bowie of their pre-singing verbal interaction was downright painful. It definitely showed an intergenerational divide in the 1970s. Glad you enjoyed this. Have a wonderful week.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Heidi - I'm so glad you enjoy this series. Some of the versions are totally surprising me. Have a wonderful week and stay warm!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on November 17, 2019:

Liz - I appreciate your warm comment. Have a wonderful weekend.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 17, 2019:

A great song to compare versions, Flourish, but I am biased. I have the Bob Seger version on one of the Christmas compilations I pull out every year, and I just love it. It is one of my favourite a Christmas songs, but I can’t go past this cover.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 17, 2019:

Of the ones you listed, I would opt for Ann Murray...but my mind instantly went to Bing Crosby....the classics at Christmas will always be favorites of mine.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on November 17, 2019:

No way to choose here.

Here is a fun one. I was cast as the drummer but my voice broke. I could not control between the child voice and the older. (now I can)

So I was sat back down as the first chair reed in the orchestra.

Can you believe that back then this all in a public school.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 17, 2019:

I didn't realise Ann Murray sang this until you posted it here. She sings it really well, I think. I still prefer Bing Crosby and David Bowie's version though. This is a lovely song, one of my favourite Christmas songs.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 17, 2019:

I also think that the Vienna Boys Choir version which I think was featured in the Rankin/Bass stop motion Little Drummer Boy Christmas special is a worthy contender.

Lovin' the "Who Sang It Best?" series! Have a great week!

Liz Westwood from UK on November 17, 2019:

You have compiled an interesting list. I had no idea it had been covered so many times. You are getting into the festive spirit in good time.

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