Gage McKinney: Pandemic can’t silence Grass Valley’s Cornish carols
Special to The Union
Every year since 1877 people have heard Cornish carols on the streets of Grass Valley, though some years there was only one caroler.
In the spirit of the lone caroler, the Cornish carols will continue this season despite the pandemic.
The Cornish carols, folk songs written by miners, came to Grass Valley in the Gold Rush and were performed by groups of homesick men at Christmas. These sacred carols, sung by male voices, were heard in pubs as well as churches.
In 1877 the Cornish miners formed a choir to sing for the whole town. The choir performed in all the churches, at the Mount St. Mary’s Orphanage and especially on the street. Generations of singers assembled on The Union building steps on Mill Street to sing their carols.
Over the years the choir welcomed men and boys of every background, and of varied occupations and ethnicities, including Scandinavians, Chinese and Italians, and the furthest stretch for the Cornish, Irishmen. The Cornish carols became Grass Valley’s carols.
By the 1970s the mines had closed and the singers had aged. After the choir could no longer recruit boys to sing alto in their harmonies, it ceased performing. Shops on Mill Street played recordings of the Cornish carols, but otherwise the tradition seemed to have died.
Except for one singer. Harold T. George began singing with the choir as a 6-year-old alto and continued with the group all his life. Even during World War II, he got leave one Christmas to return to Grass Valley to sing with the carolers.
Then in the 1970s, when the choir discontinued performances, George would walk to Mill Street by himself on Christmas Eve, stand on The Union building steps, and sing a carol or two with the old singers in his heart.
This season the Grass Valley Downtown Association will play recordings of the carol choir on Mill Street during Cornish Christmas.
“We’re doing our part to keep the carol tradition alive,” said Grass Valley Downtown Association executive director Marni Marshall.
The carol choir will also encourage its members to individually sing a carol or two outdoors.
“Some might sing on their front porches or in a park or on a street corner,” said Grass Valley Carol Choir director Eleanor Kenitzer. “The idea is to sing the Cornish carols, even if few get to hear them.”
Lauren Almond, a current carol singer who remembers Harold George, suggested carolers today could follow his example.
“We want to maintain the continuity of singing these carols and not miss a year,” Almond said. “We’re very devoted to our carols and to Eleanor, our director.”
In addition to unannounced outdoor solos, the downtown association will video record two or three individual performances for posting on Facebook and its homepage, Marshall said.
In 1990, the lone caroler Harold George helped Eleanor Kenitzer resurrect the Carol Choir. Kenitzer began with George and other graying men, who had grown old singing the carols, and she added women to sing alto. More have joined over the last 30 years.
While the addition of women was an innovation, it wasn’t unprecedented. Women had kept the carols alive during World War I when the male singers had gone to war. One woman in particular, long-time Methodist music director Eliza Prisk, sang solo carols at Christmas concerts.
The Cornish have another historic image of a solitary singer. In Cornwall, Michigan, Wisconsin, South Africa and Australia, as well as in Grass Valley — wherever the Cornish miners traveled — people shared a particular memory. At Christmas they recalled gangs of miners walking home after their shift, singing a carol. As each man arrived at his home, the group would diminish, until one solitary voice was heard carrying the tune far into the distance.
In the pandemic, Grass Valley has temporarily lost its choir. But those who listen closely this season may hear the distant, haunting song of a lone Cornish caroler.
Gage McKinney wrote When Miners Sang, a history of the Cornish carols. His latest book is “Gold Mining Genius: A Life of George W. Starr.” Contact him at http://www.gagemckinney.com.
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