Harold T. George passed on October 31, 2013. The following is from When Miners Sang: The Grass Valley Carol Choir (2001), by Gage McKinney. Excerpted with permission.
By the early years of the twenty-first century one Grass Valley singer had become an emblem of the Cornish Carol Choir's perseverance, and his life a quiet testimony to the conditions that have made the continuation of carol singing possible. Harold Thomas George (known widely as "Harold Jr.") the son of Harold J. George, could trace his lineage back to the very origins of the Grass Valley Carol Choir, and the early stirrings in the California gold mines.
His father Harold J. George (1888-1973) was the longest-serving director of the Cornish Carol Choir. He began singing in the group as a boy alto in 1907. (There were no women in the early choirs, and the upper part was sung by boys.) He became director of the choir in 1921, and his name was synonymous with Cornish carol singing for decades. He also owned a music store on Mill Street and founded and developed the music program in the Grass Valley schools.
In his youth "Harold Jr." was not as involved in singing as others in the family. War years and university years took George away from home, and yet he had sung with the choir in 1926 at age six and was singing still at eighty. Equally emblematic, his wife Ruth was singing beside him.
Except for those few middle years, Harold T. George lived in Grass Valley all his life. He was born in the house his father built on Neal Street, and he raised his own family in the house next door that had been built by his grandparents. His musical training began early, and he sang with the boy altos until his voice matured.
For more than seventy years he carried the membership card issued to him in 1930. On the back it states:
By becoming a member of the Grass Valley Carol Choir, a signer signifies his intention that he is a lover of the good old English custom of singing carols; and to the end that the choir may be an organization of which all may be proud, he will deem it a pleasure and duty to attend each and every practice possible. - Membership Committee
George conducted some carols when the choir performed in the 1950s and '60s, but he insists, "Only my father directed the choir." He was a crucial link between the old choir that had died out and the revival of Cornish choir singing in the 1990s. He attended the fateful meeting in 1967 when the old carolers decided to cease their public performances, and he attended the first practice of the new Cornish Carol Choir called by Eleanor Kenitzer in October 1990. For a number of years he sang with that group and with the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir.
Kenitzer was the driving force behind the revival of Cornish carol singing in Grass Valley. She was raised in North Carolina and knew nothing about the Cornish traditions before coming to the area in 1988. She learned this music from Harold T. George and a few other veterans of the old choir. The new Cornish Carol Choir contained women as well as men, but a Male Voice Choir was founded in 1997, and both are still active today.
Despite all his time with choirs, George considered himself more an instrumentalist than a singer. He was perhaps the last of the self-taught Cornish musicians, having learned the clarinet on his own. He wore his white pants and sailor's cap when he marched in the local Boys' Band, and as a teenager he accompanied the carolers with his clarinet, helping to keep the altos in tune. He continued playing through his school years and was named one of the best high school clarinetists in the state.
He was mustered into an Air Force band in World War II and performed with orchestras in USO shows in California and Hawaii. After demobilization he continued his education at the University of California, Berkeley, until he discovered a faster-paced course at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. There he earned two degrees and a teaching credential, and more importantly, met his future wife. He and Ruth returned to Grass Valley where he began his teaching career. Harold took over his father's music department at Grass Valley High School in 1948, and later taught at the new Nevada Union High School. After twenty years a partial hearing loss forced him to forgo music and teach social studies and driver education classes instead. After more than thirty years of teaching, he retired in 1981.
"Our family, the church, music and school have been my entire life," the ever-smiling George once told a reporter from The Union, and neither retirement nor impaired hearing could change that. On Monday nights, as first-chair clarinet, you could find him practicing with the Nevada County Concert Band. On Thursday nights you could always find him and his wife in the sanctuary of the Grass Valley United Methodist Church practicing with the church choir.
Perhaps nothing was more indicative of the the traditions that have been preserved in Grass Valley than to see Harold and Ruth George arrive on Mill Street on a cold December night to sing with the Cornish Carol Choir. They always came on foot, dressed for the performance in black and white, Harold wearing a bow tie and Ruth a simple necklace. While visiting beforehand with the other singers, Harold George might tell a favorite story from the old days. It might be the one about the Cousin Jack clarinetist who came to band practice "in his cups" (drunk), fumbled for a time with his instrument, and then broke it over his knee and left, giving up his chair for good. Or he might tell the dialect story about two Cousin Jacks who hunted a bear.
Eventually, Harold and Ruth and the others would take their places on The Union steps. The Georges would lift their eyes to the director and, on cue, begin to sing "Sound! Sound! your instruments of joy."