The youngest choir boy
When Dustin Pecor, 12, began singing with the historic Grass Valley Cornish Carol Choir this season, he made some history of his own. He’s the youngest person to join the group in 37 years.
In the days when the choir was primarily composed of mining men and their sons, several boys Dustin’s age sang the alto part. The group’s old-timers agree that the last boy to join was Joseph C. Day of Nevada City, who began singing about 1964 or 1965.
After the choir formally disbanded in 1967, male students from Nevada Union High School sang the Cornish carols. Since the tradition was revived in 1990, women replaced the younger members. Today there are about 32 members in the choir, divided about equally between men and women.
Dustin said he wanted to sing in the choir after learning about it from his grandmother, Cindy Cara of Grass Valley, and from a recent book on the group’s history. Cara told him that his family had sung in the choir for generations.
His great-great-grandfather, Oakley Johns, worked at the Empire Mine and began singing in Grass Valley about 1914. He was an outstanding tenor and sang professionally for a time. Dustin’s great-grandfather and great-uncles also sang.
“Last year, I took Dustin to see the carol choir, and all of a sudden he looked up and said, ‘Grandma, can I sing with them?'” said Cara, who then contacted the choir’s director, Eleanor Kenitzer. This year, Dustin debuted on the first night of Cornish Christmas.
The oldest members of the choir have accepted Dustin enthusiastically.
“I think it’s great that someone would be interested,” said Harold George, who began singing with the choir in 1926 when he was a boy. “I see how it would be meaningful to Dustin.”
Brian Bennallack and Joseph E. Day, who have sung the Cornish carols for more than 50 years, both concurred. “I love it,” Day said. “I’m in hopes my grandson may start with the choir.”
All three men remember singing alongside Dustin’s great-great- grandfather.
“I knew Oakley Johns pretty well,” said Bennallack. “I can still see his mouth, as round as a doughnut, forming the words.”
Dustin, a Nevada County native and seventh-grader at Lyman Gilmore School, said that he learned the carols by listening to recordings.
“I listened to the music and went to a practice, and it went into my head pretty much,” he explained.
How does Dustin like singing with the choir?
“It’s fun,” he said.
In Dustin’s family the Cornish carols have never been exclusively male. His great-great-grandmother, Rosette Buzza Johns, was an exceptional musician who studied at the London Conservatory of Music. She knew the carols from her girlhood in Cornwall. When she was organist at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Grass Valley during the first half of the 1900s, she included Cornish carols in the Christmas worship services.
Gage McKinney is author of the book “When Miners Sang: The Grass Valley Carol Choir,” available at The Book Seller, Holbrooke Hotel, the Grass Valley-Nevada County Chamber of Commerce, Odyssey Books, Four Seasons Card & Book, Harmony Books and the Fire House Museum in Nevada City. A companion CD-set of historic and contemporary recordings is also available.
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Grass Valley Cornish Christmas
WHEN: Today, 6 – 7 p.m., 8 – 9 p.m.
WHERE: Historic Downtown Grass Valley, Mill Street, Union Building steps.
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