“Do You Hear What I Hear?” A Christmas Carol and a Prayer for Peace

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A Merry Christmas Moment

by Kathy Warnes

Noel and Gloria Regney wrote “Do You Hear What I hear?” a timeless Christmas prayer for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the Cold War

In October 1962, musician Noel Regney walked through the streets of Manhattan, the weight of despair in his heart reflected on the unsmiling faces of the people that he passed on the street. A war of words and maneuvers called the Cold War held the world in an icy grip, with the United States and the Soviet Union the principal combatants.

During these last two weeks in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union were heating the Cold War to the nuclear boiling point in a confrontation over the Soviet Union installing missiles capable of striking most of the continental United States in Cuba, just 90 miles away. History labeled this confrontation the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Noel Regney Feels the Weight of Despair and the Lightness of Hope

Said the night wind to the little lamb,/Do you see what I see/Way up in the sky little lamb,/Do you see what I see/A star, a star, dancing in the night/With a tail as big as a kite,/With a tail as big as a kite.” 
Noel Regney felt terrified for his family, his country, and for the survival of the human race. He had fought in World War II and had experienced the fear and terror of war and death first hand.  Now he worried that the secure life he had built for himself and his family in the United States teetered on nuclear brinkmanship.

He tried to think about something else. Christmas, the time of peace on earth and good will, hovered just a few months away and a record producer had asked him to write a Christmas song. He later recalled that he thought he would never write a Christmas song because Christmas had become so commercial.

Then on his way home, Noel saw two mothers taking their babies for a walk in their strollers. He watched the two babies looking at each other and smiling and his mood lifted from despair to hope. Noel’s mind turned to poetry and babies and lambs. By the time he arrived home, he had composed the lyrics of Do You Hear What I Hear? in his head.

Noel and Gloria Shayne Regney Compose Do You Hear What I Hear? Together

“Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy, /“Do you hear what I hear? / Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy, /Do you hear what I hear? /a song, a song, high above the tree/with a voice as big as the sea.” 
As soon as Noel Regney arrived home, he jotted down the lyrics that he had written in his head and he asked his wife Gloria to write the music to match his words. The Regneys usually collaborated using the exact opposite method – Gloria would write the words and Noel would write the music. This time they switched roles.

Gloria Regney later said, “Noel wrote a beautiful song and I wrote the music. We couldn’t sing it through; it broke us up. We cried. Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at the time.”

Noel Regney Experienced War First Hand

“Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king, /“Do you know what I know? /In your palace warm, mighty king, /Do you know what I know? /A Child, a Child shivers in the cold—/Let us bring him silver and gold.”

Noel Regney seemed destined for a brilliant music career in his native France. He studied at Strasbourg Conservatory and at the Conservatorie National de Paris. Then Hitler’s Nazi troops invaded France and the Germans forcibly drafted Noel Regney into the Army. While in the German Army, Noel joined the French underground. He collected information and warned French resistance fighters of upcoming attacks from the Germans and he still wore the German Army uniform while he carried out his missions.

One mission in particular haunted Noel Regney. The French underground assigned him to lead a group of German soldiers into a trap so that French fighters could catch them in a crossfire. The memory of dead German soldiers falling to the ground haunted Noel. The French fighters suffered only minor injuries, and although Noel , too, was shot he sustained minor injuries. Shortly after the raid, Noel deserted the German army and lived with the French underground until the war ended.

After the war ended, Noel worked as the musical director of the Indochinese Service of Radio France from 1948 to 1950.. After that he became musical director at Lido, a popular Paris nightclub. In 1951, Noel Regney left France for a world tour as musical director for the French singer Lucienne Boyer.

Noel Regney Moves to Manhattan and Marries a Musician

Said the king to the people everywhere,/“Listen to what I say!/Pray for peace, people, everywhere,/Listen to what I say!/The Child, The Child sleeping in the night/He will bring us goodness and light,/He will bring us goodness and light.”
In 1952, Noel Regney immigrated to the United States and moved to Manhattan. As well as writing serious musical compositions he composed, arranged and conducted music for many early TV shows and wrote commercial jingles for radio.

One day he walked into the dining room of a Manhattan hotel and saw a beautiful woman playing popular music on the piano. He introduced himself and in a month he and Gloria Shayne were married. Their daughter Gabrielle Regney describes her mother as “an extraordinary pianist and composer who has perfect pitch.”

Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Regney composed music together and separately. The songs they composed together include Rain, Rain, Go Away, recorded by Bobby Vinton, but Do You Hear What Hear? is their Christmas classic masterpiece.

Some of Gloria’s popular songs include Goodbye Cruel World, and The Men in My Little Girl’s Life, and Almost There. In 1963 Noel composed Dominique, made world famous by the Singing Nun and in 1971, he wrote Slovenly Peter, a concert suite derived from a German folktale. In 1974, he wrote a five part cantata called I Believe in Life. Gloria and Noel divorced in 1973. Noel Regney died in 2002 and Gloria Shayne Regney Baker died in 2008.

Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, Susan Boyle, and Andy Williams are just a few of the artists that have recorded the more than 120 versions of Do You Hear What I Hear? in musical styles from jazz to reggae. Bing Crosby’s version in 1963 sold more than a million copies.

According to his obituary, Noel Regney favored the Robert Goulet version of the song.

“I am amazed that people can think they know the song- and not know it is a prayer for peace, but we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings,” he said in a 1985 interview.

“Listen to what I say, pray for peace people everywhere.”
sheetmusic

References

Fox, Margalit “Gloria Shayne Baker, Composer and Lyricist Dies at 84. The New York Times. March 11, 2008

Martin, Douglas. Noel Regney, Songwriter Known for ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ Dead at 80.  The New York Times, December 1, 2011.

A Merry Christmas Moment: The Little Drummer Boy

Katherine K. Davis – The Little Drummer Boy “Almost Wrote Itself”

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Ice sculpture of the Little Drummer Boy, England.

by Kathy Warnes

Katherine K. Davis wrote the Little Drummer Boy in 1941, and since then he has drummed his timeless message into the hearts of people everywhere.

There are different versions of the story of Katherine Kennicott Davis’s creation of the Little Drummer Boy. One version of the story says that Katherine freely translated a Czech carol called The Carol of the Drum, in 1941.  Another version of the story has it that she arranged the Little Drummer Boy with Harry Simone, Jack Halloran, and Henry Onorati and another version of the story says that she wrote the song herself while “trying to take a nap.”

The bibliography of her musical career indicates that Katherine K. Davis wrote and arranged The Little Drummer Boy in 1941, but she produced a lifetime of music before she wrote the Little Drummer Boy.

Katherine Kennicott Davis Composed Her First Musical Composition at Age 15

Come, they told me/pa rum pum pum pum/A new born King to see/pa rum pum pum pum/ Our finest gifts we bring/pa rum pum pum pum/To lay before the King/pa rum pum pum pum/rum pum pum pum/rum pum pum pum/So to honor Him/pa rum pum pum pum/When we come.”

Katherine Kennicott Davis was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on June 25, 1892, and she
graduated from St. Joseph High School in 1910. When she was just 15, Katherine wrote her first musical composition called “Shadow March.” She studied music at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and she won the Billings Prize for composition there in 1914. After she graduated, Katherine stayed on at Wellesley and taught music theory and piano as an assistant in the Music Department. She also studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

After she returned from Paris, Katherine Kennicott Davis taught music at the Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, and at the Shady Hill School for Girls in Philadelphia. She wrote many of her more than 600 compositions for the choirs at her school. She was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and Stetson University in DeLand, Florida awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Katherine Kennicott Davis Writes “Let All Things Now Living”

Katherine told colleagues that in the 1920 she had found the traditional Welsh folk tune, the Ash Grove in the Book of National Songs. She wrote the harmonization and a descant for the tune and published them in 1939, with her text under the name of John Cowley, one of her pseudonyms.  She called her new song Let All Things Now Living, and it became a favorite Thanksgiving hymn of many church choirs and congregations.

Katherine Kennicott Davis Writes The Little Drummer Boy

little drummer boy

“Little Baby pa rum pump pum pum/ I am a poor boy too pa rum pump pum pum/ I have no gift to bring pa rum pump pum pum/That’s fit to give our King pa rum pump pump pum, pa rum rum pump pum pum pum pum pum/Shall I play for you pa rum pump pump pum/On my drum.”

The Little Drummer Boy is the story of a poor boy who couldn’t afford a gift for the newborn Christ Child, so he played his drum at the manger with Mary’s approval. The baby smiled, delighted with the Little Drummer Boy’s skillful playing.

The story of the Little Drummer Boy resembles a twelfth century legend that Anatole France retold as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame or Our Lady’s Juggler. The French legend said that a juggler juggled in front of a statue of Mary and the statue, depending on the version of the story, either smiled at him or threw him a rose. In 1902, Jules Massenet adapted the story into an opera and in 1984, in the television film The Juggler of Notre Dame the statue both smiled at the juggler and threw him a rose.

In 1955, shortly before they retired, the Trapp Family singers recorded the Carol of the Drum. This song resembles the Little Drummer Boy both in music and lyrics. The only difference is the line “The ox and lamb kept time.” In The Carol of the Drum, the line is the “The ox and ass kept time.”

Henry Onorati Arranges His Version of The Carol of the Drum

Mary nodded/pa rum pum pum pum/The ox and lamb kept time/pa rum pum pum pum/I played my drum for Him/pa rum pum pum pum/

In 1957, Henry Onorati re-arranged The Carol of the Drum for the Jack Halloran Singers to record on Dot Records, but Dot didn’t release the record in time for Christmas. In 1958, Henry Onorati introduced his friend Harry Simeone to the Carol of the Drum. Harry Simeone was a conductor and arranger from Newark, New Jersey, who had worked on several Bing Crosby movies and worked as conductor for a television show called The Firestone Hour from 19521959.

Harry Simeone re-arranged the song and re-titled it The Little Drummer Boy. He recorded it with the Harry Simeone Chorale on the album Sing We Now of Christmas. Harry Simeone and Henry Onorati were given joint credit with Katherine K. Davis for the song even though they had only arranged it. This was Harry Simeone’s first album with a chorus and it was released at Christmas time every year from 1958-1962. It became a holiday classic.

The Little Drummer Boy Becomes a Beloved Holiday Carol

“I played my best for Him/pa rum pum pum pum/rum pum pum/ pum/rum pum pum pum”

Since the 1950s, The Little Drummer Boy has appeared in over 200 versions in seven languages in all kinds of music genres. In 1964 Marlene Dietrich recorded a German version of the Little Drummer Boy.

The Beverly Sisters and Michael Flanders recorded hit versions of The Little Drummer Boy in 1959, and in 1972, the Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Guards had a hit version of the carol.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie recorded the most popular version of the Little Drummer Boy as a duet with Peace On Earth for Bing Crosby’s Television Christmas special in 1977. The duet version was written after David Bowie admitted he hated the song that he was scheduled to sing. Bing Crosby performed The Little Drummer Boy while David Bowie sang the new song Peace on Earth. The duet eventually became a classic.

In 2008, BBC disc jockey Terry Wogan and singer Aled Jones recorded a new version of the Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy duet for a charity album released to help Children In Need. Issued as a single, it climbed to a UK Top hit for them.

Katherine Kennicott Davis Writes a Lifetime of Music

Then he smiled at me pa rum pum pum pum/Me and my drum.”

Katherine Kennicott Davis continued writing music until she fell ill in the winter of 1979-1980. On April 20, 1980, she died at the age of 87 in Littleton, Massachusetts. Her musical legacy included operas, choruses, children’s operettas, cantatas, piano and organ pieces and songs like Let All Things Now Living, and The Little Drummer Boy. She left all of the royalties and proceeds from her musical compositions to Wellesley College’s Music Program.

Katherine K. Davis once quipped that The Little Drummer Boy “had been done to death on radio and TV,” but musicians all over the world continue to sing and record her song.

Stevie Wonder’s version of The Little Drummer Boy.
References

Bowie, David and Crosby, Bing. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy. CD

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Little Drummer Boy.

DVD Vienna Boy’s Choir. The Little Drummer Boy. CD