Where Christmas Music Lived

We all know our favorite holidays songs. But do you know where they came from?

By Ron Clancy, North Cape May, New Jersey

As appeared in

No one knows for sure the plantation where it was written, and today the Coffin Point Plantation is the only one on the island that remains. At one time it occupied 1,120 acres and housed 63 slaves. I found the three-story manor house, white with red-roof shingles, down a quiet back road, near the sea.

Built in 1801, it’s a private home now. No one was there. I backed off the veranda and stood on the ample lawn. I sang the song softly to myself and thought of what the peace of Christmas must have meant to a slave.

Murphy, North Carolina
I Wonder as I Wander

The next morning I drove six and a half hours, from St. Helena Island, to Murphy, North Carolina, in the Great Smoky Mountains.

John Jacob NilesIn 1933, I had read, the renowned folklorist and folksinger John Jacob Niles happened to be visiting the tiny Appalachian village, intent on collecting and recording traditional songs.

In his unpublished autobiography he wrote of a revivalist preacher’s daughter, who “stepped out to the edge of [a] little platform attached to [her father’s] automobile. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. But in her untutored way, she could sing.

"She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

Niles, enthralled, asked her to repeat the song and the lyric. She sang it seven times, Niles paying her 25 cents each time.

After the seventh take, he wrote, he had “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material— and a magnificent idea.” From that he composed the haunting carol I Wonder as I Wander.

Niles’s carol is one of my favorites. Murphy was exactly as I had pictured it—the main street ran two blocks. There was an old bank, a drugstore and a town hall where I met the mayor Bill Hughes.

“Sure, I know the song,” he told me. “Everyone here does.” He stood up from his desk. “Come on with me,” he said, and led me down the street. “This is where Niles stood when he first heard the girl sing,” he said, indicating a spot by a fountain.

I thought of Niles’s lyrics, so simple yet so profound. Great beauty needs no adornment, I thought.

Katherine K. DavisConcord, Massachusetts
The Little Drummer Boy

After a full day of travel to All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan, the source of inspiration for the Alfred Burt family carols, I headed east to Concord, Massachusetts, to visit Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where composer Katherine K. Davis is buried.

In 1941, Ms. Davis wrote The Carol of the Drum, known today as The Little Drummer Boy. Davis taught music at Wellesley College. She penned more than 600 songs. It is said she based her famous hymn on an old Czech carol. In a long-ago interview, she said the song “practically wrote itself.”

But it wasn’t an instant hit. In fact, 17 years passed before she got a phone call one day from a friend. “Kay, your carol is on the air, all the time, everywhere on the radio!” she said.

“What carol?” she asked, surprised.

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Your Comments (2)

Greetings in this Holy Season,

I loved the article by Ron Clancy. I am a retired music teacher and church musician. I, too, fell in love with Christmas music at a very early age-- 3 or 4. Probably my love for Christmas music inspired me to make music my career. I remember watching and hearing in awe the Christmas programs sung my the local high school choir, of which I later became the director. One of my favorites was Katherine K. Davis' "Carol of the Drum." I remember being outraged that it became popular under the title "The Little Drummer Boy." I still refer to it as "Carol of the Drum" and always will.

Mr. Clancy's article, however, left me puzzled. I have always heard that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was composed by the Rev. Dr. Phillips Brooks of Trinity Episcopal Church of Boston in Copley Square. Indeed, I attended services there some years ago, and in the tour of the church, it was mentioned that Dr. Brooks was Rector there and that, indeed, he composed the carol after returning from a visit to the Holy Land.

Perhaps you could pass this comment on to Mr. Clancy and see if we can clear up this puzzle.

Wishing you a happy and peaceful Christmas and a Blessed New Year.

Peace,
Robert M. Martin

Dear Mr. Martin,

You probably would be happy to know that I have a copy of the official transcript of an 1980 reporter's interview with Katherine K. Davis about the origins of "Carol of the Drum."

With respect to Rev. Brooks and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," he was born in Massachusetts and later served as rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia he wrote the carol a few years after returning from the Holy Land in 1865. He eventually became the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, and it would make sense he would be noted for his carol regardless of where he lived or the fact he wrote it while Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.

Merry Christmas!

Ron