Before Christmas Gets Away: A Brief Note On The Most Insidious Christmas Song Of All

Drummer Boy

In response to my post about the decline of Christmas which included some comments on  the dearth of new religion-themed Christmas songs over the last half-century, some readers, on and off site, have pointed me to the 1977  duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie from Bing’s last (and posthumously broadcast) TV Christmas special, where Bing sang “The Little Drummer Boy” (yechh) and Bowie sang some doggerel about world peace in counterpoint. Aesthetically, as one who yields to no one in admiration for the copious talents of Der Bingle,  I found the song atrocious when I saw it. Philosophically, politically and ethically, however, it is even worse.

Here are the lyrics of Bowie’s section:

Peace on Earth, can it be
Years from now, perhaps we’ll see
See the day of glory
See the day, when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again

Peace on Earth, can it be
Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can

I pray my wish will come true
For my child and your child too
He’ll see the day of glory
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again.

I know the indoctrination of children is in favor right now, but the couplet,

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care

is, by turns, insidious, creepy, totalitarian, arrogant, and redolent of what we are currently seeing in the schools, with various state and media-approved thought-control efforts like the demonizing of gun owners and the promotion of an active fear of firearms, the taboo against anything relating to religion, and the use of environmental activist propaganda (such as Al Gore’s documentary on global warming) in lesson plans. It also conveys the attitude now being displayed in full force on the web, where non-conforming opinions appearing in the media an social media must be punished, as well as “insensitive” jokes and satire, because caring about not offending others, whether there is legitimate grounds for offense or not, is supposedly more important than the free expression of ideas.

The song itself is trivial—there are dumb lyrics in a lot of Christmas songs (my personal candidate for dumbest: “Christmas comes this time each year” from the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick”), and I doubt the lyrics of Bowie’s counterpoint were given a lot of thought, as the section was apparently written at the last minute when Bowie expressed his hatred for “Little Drummer Boy” (good for him). Still, it says something alarming about U.S. society’s casual acceptance of the concept of indoctrination that those lyrics don’t set off an immediate ethics alarm with most listeners. Or has state directed and enforced “caring” been wholly accepted into the culture as appropriate?

I hope not. But the popularity of Bowie and Bing’s lousy duet isn’t the only troubling symptom of it.

Here is the performance from 1977.

26 thoughts on “Before Christmas Gets Away: A Brief Note On The Most Insidious Christmas Song Of All

  1. Yes. Time for your reeducation at the pol pot institute. But compare it to the complete tripe from kanye west.

    If these were simply my own thoughts I’d be reduced to boredom.

    I see so much solipsistic, self indulgent narcissism in the culture now. It has occurred to me that there is a difference between such people. Those who commit the worst, most cruel evils are, at least, more aware of those around them and intend to twist them into their rigid vision of humanity at all costs. I have a spoiled niece who was so nasty and bratty as to completely ignore or fight my parents attempts to intercede and help her get through school last year. I’d ask “what’s the difference between geneva and adolph hitler?…Hitler actually gave some thought to those outside him. The niece can’t even get that far.” It’s made me take a different look at the subject of evil. In some ways I actually have more respect for those that commit these terrible atrocities because I realize their awareness had at least evolved to the point that they are aware other people exist and they have formulated some vision for society. Sadly, the damage they do in their zeal, obliterates all intentions.

  2. Most people probably don’t hear or can’t understand the lyrics. I like Little Drummer Boy, but not because of the lyrics. It just adds to the holiday for me along with the other Christmas carols.
    I had never heard In the First Light until Eeyoure recommended it. It’s on my playlist now, by the way. There’s so much conflict about Christmas I sometimes just want to enjoy the moments and let the little irritations go.

    • Granny, belated Merry Christmas, and I’m glad you like the First Light song. (No pun or hidden marketing gimmick intended, with the “…I’m glad…”) Full disclosure: For a brief time a few decades ago, I was personally acquainted with the songwriter.

  3. I admit I haven’t liked the “made to care” for a while, but the harmony makes the drummer boy tolerable. Those lyrics were ill-chosen , because at most you can force children to go through the motions. There is no way to force someone to care, and force is more likely to cause rebellion against even the idea.
    We can’t redo the recording, and I’m not fond of ‘correcting’ traditional songs for changing times. Still what should those two lines have been to fit the rest of the lyrics and meter?

  4. I love Bing Crosby. He was an enormous, iconic talent. And I love David Bowie… because he’s weird. And I like quite a few weird people. But I don’t like his part of this song. Frankly, I don’t like Little Drummer Boy – not because I don’t like the song, per se, but because my mother used to make me sing it to her at Christmas time and it made her cry. Now she’s gone, and I can’t hear the song, much less sing it, because it reminds me of her and so… I’m just going to crawl to the couch with some tissues and a cup of hot tea and I don’t want to talk about it.

    They should have just picked something else. It’s not like they both didn’t know another Christmas song.

    • I still miss Bing, and not just at Christmas, As for Christmas songs, I wonder if there were any he didn’t not only know, but record. Well, some of Gene Autry’s stranger ones, I’m sure he skipped.

  5. I’ll take Jack at his word, and will not even listen to the Bing-Bowie duet. I don’t know how I missed it all these years, except maybe because I had heard Bing singing it, and I could discern right away that it wasn’t his best, so it wasn’t worth listening to.

    The song was fun to do in choirs, when I was young and could hit the bass notes – never even gave a thought to the lyrics in those days. Negro spirituals are more fun, for my music tastes.

  6. I saw that broadcast when it was first aired, Jack. My take is a little different, I guess. I think we can make allowance for David Bowie- back then- not actually advocating for child secular indoctrination. Maybe he was, but that was back in 1977, remember. Were those lyrics any different from what a Sunday School program might have contained? Actually, I thought the duet went rather well. What surprised me was that Bowie could actually sing a straight tune, something that few rockers can do. We could have done without his singing “Heroes” in the same broadcast, though!

  7. Weighing in as a musician and a certifiable Christmas geek — I have never ever liked the Bing/Bowie duet. I just bite my tongue when people I care about rhapsodize about it. I think, though, that they are actually rhapsodizing about the improbability of the pairing of these 2 disparate personalities/celebrities and then they generalize that into believing that there is something inspiring and deep and moving about the whole thing. Frankly, I can never really get through watching the video, and in the tiny bit that I might not be able to avoid I can never understand what Bowie is singing. And I’m too busy looking at Bing and thinking how old he looks in the video and how I am not enjoying the sound of that once mellifluous crooning.

    Regarding the “Every child must be made aware; Every child must be made to care” lyrics — eh. There’s lots of careless songwriting going on out there and has been for a long time. (“Christmas comes this time each year” also makes me want to rip the radio out of my car and hurl it through an open window.) But I don’t mind the first half — “making” anyone aware of anything is never really objectionable. It’s part of communicating. When I make my son aware of the fact that he has amassed the entire contents of our kitchen cabinets in the form of dirty dishes in the basement, I am merely communicating. When my husband tells me that our son “must be made aware” of this, he’s not indoctrinating, although he might be foaming at the mouth.

    However, the second half smacks of misguided fascism. Once we make someone aware of something, that person has the right and free will to decide their response. My son can tell me to go to hell, but he won’t. He can feel that he is being harassed. He can decide to further push his father to the brink of his head exploding by not bringing up the dishes, or he can decide to shift the axis of the planet and bring up his crockery.

    You can’t “make” anyone care. Anyone who has ever had their heart broken can attest to that.

    • Great post, especially the last sentence.

      Bing did look tired. But he sounded better in his latter years than almost all the other crooners, perhaps because he sang correctly. Sinatra was really croaking after about 60. And after that special was taped, Bing had one of his great comebacks with a sell-out, triumphant London Palladium gig right before he dropped dead on that Spanish golf course. He was like a great baseball player who can still play at 44—he’s a shadow of his peak, but he was so far above everyone e;se to start with that even at 40%, he’s pretty good.

  8. Now HERE is an improbable pairing — Simon & Garfunkel with Andy Williams — that is actually quite good. Not Christmas, but it proves that successful improbable musical pairings are possible:

    • This is exactly why I tune in to Ethics Alarms. Brilliant, funny minds, whose insights shed light into the darker dusty corners of the mind where cobwebs can prosper. This blog “makes” me think and “makes” me aware and that is a good thing.

  9. Oh, boy. “Every child must be made aware
    Every child must be made to care” If you think that’s insidious, Jack, what do you make of Cable’s song?:

    You’ve got to be taught
    To hate and fear,
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It’s got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    • Well, you do know that Cable’s song is ironic and bitter, right? Not a genuine endorsement of indoctrination at all…in fact, the opposite. But since you ask, I think all of the Lt. Cable subplot in South Pacific is embarrassing, heavy-handed Oscar Hammerstein PC, and pretty much ruins the musical… and Cable himself is a squash.

      • Uh, yeah, I do know that. And I think it applies both ways: there is a “PC” on the right (not to be confused with ‘correct’) side too. A plague on both their Houses.
        But I think you have overgrown your vocabularly this time, Jack. A squash?? small & dark green or giant & orange? Dites moi pourquoi vous n’aimez pas ca legume? Granted, the show is formula, dated in its relationships, as racist in its Western-centricity as it is opposite in intent, and not the most realistic in many of its situations (i.e. we know Hammerstein knew squat about the military – nor lobstermen or carnys, nor pre-AA Negros, Thai folks, etc., for that matter) but you … the artistic general sworn to preserve and defend the theater of the 20th century … know these are flaws only to the perceptions of the present; the music AND the lyrics can still be compelling and thus (in)doctrinaire.
        If I — happily in mid-grammar school in 1949 — had been told I “must be aware” and “made to care,” I would have stuck my tongue out at the rhyme and promptly forgotten the instructions. But I plead guilty to being seduced by the revelations of the R&H songs (with the exception of Sappy Talk), not because they were PC — and neither the phrase nor the communal tyranny of PC-ness would exist for another four decades! — but because it did give me new questions to nag grownups with, the answers to which then gave me new ideas to explore and debate. And to continue to do so as hate and fear continue to metastasize. That’s what one does when one has been carefully taught to think.
        But, really, the original cast album was my birthday present that year; it came wrapped and taped inside the cover of our first 33 1/3 record player, bought in its honor: the record was one of the first LPs ever, which meant I didn’t have to stop dancing to change the 78s every three minutes (as with Show Boat – also proselytizing, Oklahoma – also ignorant of its subject, and Carousel, the best of the best – in spite of “My Boy Bill”).
        If Hammerstein had written a Christmas song, I bet you’d love it.

        • Oh, heck—I’m a big R&H fan, though much more R than H; I just find certain moments nauseating, and South Pacific gets the prize, though the New England cutesie (the Snows especially) in Carousel comes close, followed by all Ado Annie moments in Oklahoma, and the broken English kids lines in “The King and I.” Then there’s the “Good night” song in “Sound of Music”…OK, its more than certain moments.

      • I understand that this sort of thing was a continual source of friction between Rogers and Hammerstein. For a number of reasons (including that song) “South Pacific” remains my least favorite of their productions. On the other hand, I can’t get enough of Rogers’ fantastic score for “Victory At Sea”.

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