Inside the Songs: Rita Hosking’s California Cornish Roots
I grew up in Grass Valley and Nevada City, two conjoined towns in the foothills of Northern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. This was the heart of Gold Rush country, and Nevada City is home to a historic gold mine (the oldest and the largest, in fact), Empire Mine. I grew up far out in the woods, and could hike to a small stream near our home and an abandoned mine, where I used to play as a kid (real safe, right?). Besides old bottles and cans littered around the mine, there was a line of miner’s boots tied to a tree outside the shaft and an old rusted mine car across the stream in the bushes. So even though mining was pretty much done out there, Grass Valley and Nevada City still have a lot of roots in mining culture, and one of these main roots was Cornish. Brought to the region in the 1870s for their mining expertise, Cornish immigrants brought a distinct culture to Northern California. Today you can still buy Cornish pasties (delicious pastries that are kind of a cross between a calzone and a pot pie) at Marshall’s Pasties downtown, and every year Grass Valley hosts a Cornish Christmas celebration. Musically, though, there isn’t too much left.
Cornwall is a Celtic region in Britain, with a language similar to Welsh or French Breton, but the music of the Cornish miners in the States was primarily vocal music, performed in large men’s choirs. They also loved brass bands as well, and some still survive in the surrounding area.
I’d always wondered about the musical roots of the region, so I was very excited when I heard recently that renowned California songwriter Rita Hosking actually came from Cornish family roots and had been looking into the music. So I decided to go “inside the songs” with her.
[NOTE: the photo that opens this article is of a group of Cornish miners in Empire Mine, including her grandfather, Tom Hosking, who’s seen on the left holding the pipe]
[Rita Hosking photo by Steve Fisch.]
“Only my grandparents/great-grandparents lived in Grass Valley–My great-grandpa, Tom Hosking, worked at Empire Mines. He and his wife Ida (my nana) grew up in Cornwall in mining families, were married there, then emigrated to the U.S. Before Grass Valley, they had lived in northern Michigan and then Butte, Montana, like many Cornish miners did. In Grass Valley they lived on 123 Empire Street (a short walk down from the mine.) Tom was one of the last to emerge from the mine when it closed in 1956, because he was turning off the pumps. (He had become chief mine mechanic.) He understood the history that was being flooded and grabbed a few items like level signs, etc., some of which we still have.
The Cornish have a strong singing tradition, and Tom sang in the Cornish Carol Choir, the Grass Valley Carol Choir, Cornish Glee Club, The California Cornish Gold Mining Singers, and any sort of singing club he and his peers came up with (as did their sons.) Cornish miners have a reputation for singing underground, though I’ve read that it subsided with the introduction of different ethnic groups into the mines–they become self-conscious around others. However, I think it was still pretty strong in Grass Valley, and at Christmas in 1940 he and many other miners were broadcast singing live from underground in the Idaho/Maryland Mine [in Grass Valley] on NBC. Pretty amazing. They say the response from around the country was huge–people were very moved by hearing these miners singing from underground and their special Cornish carols. I’ve also read that NBC might have arranged this because the govt. was keen to find broadcasts to help spread awareness and comradery with the English, who were of course targets of the Nazis at that time.
We heard stories of the miners from my grandfathers, recordings of the singing, and photographs. When Christmas came around, my sister and I were told to shut up and sit down, and my father would put on the old records. He and his father would stand and sing or hum to the music, tears in their eyes. As I say in one of my bios, I grew up with a strong respect for the power of the voice–this is what I’m talking about. I could pick out my great grandfather’s voice too, even though I’d never heard him sing in real life–I knew his voice. It was a soaring tenor. If you are interested in reading about these folks, there’s a fabulous book called When Miners Sang, the Grass Valley Carol Choir, by Gage McKinney. It can be ordered with CD’s too, which I must say are easier to play than my parents old 78’s. There are several pictures with my great grandpa in them, and a little paragraph about him, too. I named a song on my most recent record, Burn, after the book, whose title I love–When Miners Sang, with the author’s permission.
Rita Hosking: When Miners Sang
“My heart is stirring with a noble song” [Psalms 45]
Of a young girl who loved plants and the sky
Of her father who mined in the dark all day long
She gave to him gifts to remember her by
Daddy please take this dandelion
You can take it below, hold up and blow
Watch all the seeds scatter and fly
You say they can’t grow, but maybe they’ll try
She placed in his pail a lilac flower
He found it at noon, its fragrance so true
All the men marveled at the beauty and power
In the light of the lamps, little lilac flower
Oh Daddy please take this pretty love song
You can sing it below, then I will know
When you are lonely, or need to feel strong
He began with it softly, the men sang along
Oh sweetheart what have I to give to you?
With pain in his heart and love in his eyes
I am a poor miner, what worth have I?
You deserve all the riches money can buy
Oh Daddy, you pay for our food on our table
And you play with me when you are able
I know what you and the others are makin’
It’s gold for the ladies and sad, sad singin’
It’s gold for the ladies and sad, pretty singin’
“My father remembers the performances they did outside the mine, in halls and such. He remembers one performance at the state fair when he was a child. His grandpa and friends were dressed in their work clothes, even with the helmets, lunch pails, some tools and such. They sang to the rhythm of a hammer hitting steel — we have a photo of his grandpa holding such a hammer on a stage, dressed out as my dad describes them. I’ve got a quote and photo inside my Silver Stream album. I don’t perform any distinctly Cornish music, however the song I wrote called When Miners Sang was intentionally influenced by Celtic sounds, which I think you’ll hear. I wrote it special for the underground recording, but liked it a lot so took it to the studio album as well.”
[Rita’s speaking here about the fascinating EP she recorded in 2010, Live in the 16 to 1 Mine. Joined by her daughter and husband, and gathered around a single microphone, the trio of musicians recorded a handful of songs about mining, some sourced from Utah Philips, some from Rita’s pen, and some traditional, in the depths of an actual working gold mine.] Here’s a track from that album:
Rita Hosking: Bright Morning Stars
“I’ve had the great honor of touring in the UK twice now, and plan to go back in a year’s time. Both times I made sure to visit Cornwall (or Kernow, as the locals say) and already have some lovely friends there, in addition to many folks I’ve met simply because Hosking is such a commonly Cornish name, and they are curious. I’d love to return sometime when I’m not in a rush/tour. Brought our kids on the first trip, and properly indoctrinated them in the pleasures of Cornish pumps, steam engines, etc…”
Rita’s newest album, Burn, is a wonderful pastiche of Northern California life, drawing both from her family’s roots in Grass Valley’s Cornish culture, and from her own childhood growing up outside of Mount Shasta, about three and a half hours Northwest of Grass Valley, into the middle of the state. The larger-than-life country characters she grew up around peek into her songs and inform her hard-scrabble, earthy songwriting. Sometimes these influences are subtle, only to be understood by those who come from the region. Her music is clearly rooted in Northern California, but her songwriting touches something much deeper than the simple culture of home. She’s writing about the deeper parts that fuel us and help us drive our lives.
I loved her song “My Demolition Man,” having grown up myself around Demolition Derby drivers in California, where the sport is quite popular in rural areas. I couldn’t resist asking her for the story behind this song as well. Here’s what she said:
“I recently found out that my childhood home (that my parents left a few years ago) in Shasta County is now inhabited by a family with a father that runs demo derby cars (as a hobby.) When I saw the stock cars up by the barn, it sent a little shock through me. I realized that I now had to find the transcendental meaning in demo derby so that I could integrate it into my spiritual core (which has a lot to do with home.) So I explored my memories of derbies we attended as a child (I remember several,) and took my family to one for Mother’s Day last year. It’s really an amazing event, grassroots and funky–there is no such thing as a NASCAR demo derby driver. It’s a hobbyist’s sport and art, and I find a real beauty and poetry to it, myself.
Rita Hosking: My Demolition Man
[Rita Hosking. photo by Rik Keller.]
Rita’s Notes about this photo: “This is Tom Hosking and his work/singing mates known as the “Grass Valley Glee Club” in this photo, on stage somewhere, not sure where, but a sampling of larger venues they played include the Warfield in SF, Senator Theatre in Sacramento, and other theatres in Auburn, Chico, Reno, Colfax and Nevada City. Tom is the one standing to the left, holding the top hammer. (They’d often sing to the beat of a swinging hammer. He would be a good candidate for this, as he was also a drummer in a bagpipe corps and kept good time.) This is only about a third of the men in the original photo.”
Rita’s Notes about this photo: “This is me in the churchyard in the village of Breage, next to the gravestone of my great-grandma’s parents (my great-grandma’s name was Ida Hosking and she was married to Tom, above. She lived into her mid-90’s.) My grandpa returned here when he was a child for a short time and I’m sure visited here, as did my father when he was in the army, on his time off. Breage is a village not too far from the town of Penzance. The folks buried here were tin miners, and worked and lived at a large mine not too far from the village.”
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