“The Little Drummer Boy” (the “Carol of the Drum”) is a great Christmas carol, and the David Bowie – Bing Crosby duet rendition of the song a cultural artifact about which dissertations ought to be written, and very well may be.
Bowie, the leader of the vanguard in contemporary music in 1977 when the song segment was recorded for Crosby’s Christmas special, is clearly aware that he is in the presence of a great performer, to whose art his own is indebted. Crosby gamely suffers the Young Turk’s unself-conscious (inadvertent?) needling, and praises the new generation with the confidence of a master.
Virtues are on display: hospitality, when Bowie tells us, “Sir Percival lets me use his piano when he’s not around,” indicating also an easy commerce between the classes that places neighborhood before the hierarchy of wealth and rank in the realm of fellowship; simplicity and directness, when Bowie describes Crosby as Sir Percival’s “poor relation from America,” and Crosby takes it in the confident stride that comes as much from knowing that poverty is not shameful as it does from knowing that he is not poor (however much he might appreciate the cheque he’d be getting).
The bit was compact, but watching it, one believes that strangers could become singing companions in under a minute, and quite naturally, simply because of their common submission to social convention and shared commitment to its gracious practice. The “secularizing” textual interpolations Bowie introduces are nevertheless in the spirit of the thing, and delivered in counterpoint.
To watch the segment is to gaze on a world that is gone, or so it seems – and yet it is Crosby himself who warns us in the bit against becoming so many laudatores temporis acti – vain “praisers of time past”. If there is to be a return to civility and amity, all that is wanting is that we behave civilly and amicably toward each other.
I readily admit the room gets dusty every single time I see the 1968 Rankin/Bass Christmas special based on the song (and voiced in several parts by the great Paul Frees). Part of that is nostalgia. I recall watching it with my father, when I was very small. Perhaps the thing has stayed with me because it is chiefly from his example that I have learned the deep and abiding truth of the story, which is a dramatic portrayal of the secret – not to happiness, but – to becoming capable of happiness, which is at once the necessary precondition for, and end of felicity in its deepest and truest sense.
In a word: Trust in God, and do your best.
The world is broken beyond repair, but its Author loved it so, and us in it, that He came into the world to make it new, and us with it, that we might be happy with Him forever. Our talents and abilities, great or small as they are or might be, are nothing: less than straw. So gracious is our King, that, when we offer them to Him, He will make us friends again. He will even restore the dead to life.
There is the secret of the lesson, I think, if we are to profit from it in our affairs: let us always trust in God and do our best, and let us always cultivate a disposition of willingness to believe that everyone we meet is doing the same. It will often be a presumption contrary to fact, whether toward our fellows or ourselves: no matter. The One we aim to please is gracious, and reveals Himself to the pure of heart.
Cover image credit: Official promotional release advertisement for The Little Drummer Boy. Fair Use via Wikipedia
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