Winter Harp breathes new life into forgotten carols

Founder and director Lori Papajohn starts searching for holiday songs when the weather’s still warm, and often finds obscure treasures

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      On hot August days when everyone else heads for the beach, harpist and singer Lori Papajohn is happily enveloped in snow—in her mind, at least—creating December’s annual Winter Harp program of seasonal music and readings. Papajohn loves nothing better than exploring the wealth of old carols and midwinter songs, some celebrated and some obscure.

      “I start with the music, and then I get together with Alan Woodland, who writes a lot of our readings, and we add the texts,” says Papajohn, founder and director of Winter Harp, on the line from her home in New Westminster. “There are a couple of dozen traditional carols that everybody in North America knows—beautiful carols that bring tears to people’s eyes. But I love to spend time researching what I call the forgotten carols. And there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

      “I go through book after book after book, I listen a lot, I go to the library to check out all their Christmas CDs, and I ask myself, ‘Why are these carols forgotten? Why is it that we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” but we don’t sing “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”—one of the carols we’re doing this time—which is fun and happy?’ It does fascinate me. So I like to do a mix of carols that audiences are familiar with, like ‘The First Noel’ and ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and ‘What Child Is This?’—to me one of the most beautiful pieces ever written—and that they can sing along to in their hearts. And then do carols that are unknown, like ‘The White Ship’.”

      Papajohn interrupts the interview to accept a delivery of the printed programs for Winter Harp. She returns and adds: “I also like to balance the poignant pieces with happy ones like ‘Fum, Fum, Fum’, which is from Catalonia. You want to dance at Christmas as well as sing praises. It’s the same with ‘Patapan’, a carol from France. Christmas music is some of the most joyous in the western tradition. In the Northern Hemisphere countries, it’s dark and cold at this time, and that’s when we gather round the fires, when we tell the stories, and when we sing.”

      Not all the instrumental music on this year’s program is as old as it may sound. “Winter Sky” was written by Papajohn herself. “It begins with an organistrum, the droning instrument from medieval Spain that’s a forebear of the hurdy-gurdy. Then the regular medieval psaltery [a stringed instrument of the zither family] plays a verse, and then it’s joined by the bass psaltery. So you have two psalteries and organistrum, which produces the most ethereal sound, like light shimmering on water.”

      Winter Harp’s curious menagerie of instruments also includes the chin cello—which, according to Papajohn, is a viola strung like a cello—and the Swedish nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle with 12 sympathetic strings that give its sound a ringing resonance. “What’s different with Winter Harp is that you’re hearing instruments that you wouldn’t hear otherwise, and of course the harp,” she notes. “Most musical instruments have evolved, but with the harp, if you pluck a string, it sounds exactly like it would have done three or four thousand years ago, so it takes us way back in our cellular memory.”


      Lori Papajohn says the harp echoes through thousands of years of music, taking us "way back in our cellular memory".

      Winter Harp’s eight musicians also sing about customs you won’t encounter elsewhere, such as wassailing. The word wassail was used in England as both a greeting and a toast, and relates to two distinct practices, both reflected in seasonal songs. The orchard-visiting wassail involved reciting incantations and singing to the apple trees to inspire a good harvest for the coming year, along with making a racket to chase away any bad spirits lurking nearby. The house-visiting wassail involved going door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts.

      “The song that we do, ‘Wassail! Wassail!’, is of the second type,” Papajohn says. “You go to the house of the feudal lord and ask for food, and in return you give the blessing on the house. It’s a bit like I remember carolling used to be—a custom that’s almost disappeared now, a great shame.”

      Papajohn is unapologetic about the nostalgic aspects of Winter Harp’s presentation, which can move listeners in mysterious ways. “What we, and other groups like us, do is the very opposite of the ‘spend, spend, spend’ type of Christmas. We’ve had people experience epiphanies in our shows. Several people have told me, ‘You changed my life.’ What we do with the stories and the songs is to open doors to people’s hearts.”

      Asked when the festive season ends for her, Papajohn laughs. “After the Winter Harp tour I’m so inspired by it all that music just comes to me, and I start writing. So Christmas never really ends.”

      Winter Harp performs at the BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts in North Vancouver on Wednesday and Thursday (December 13 and 14), at St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church in Vancouver on Saturday (December 16), and at the ACT Arts Centre in Maple Ridge on Sunday (December 17).