George Wray, of Barton on Humber, was one of Percy Grainger’s main informants in his North Lincolnshire folksong collecting trips in 1905- 1908. Three of his songs were transcribed in great detail and included in Grainger’s ground-breaking article in the Journal of the Folk Song Society, “Collecting with Phonograph.” In addition to the meticulous transcriptions of his phonograph cylinder recordings, Grainger included a great deal of contextual detail, including biographical information about the major singers.
A tough, worldly and prosperously coloured personality, George Wray worked as a brickmaker from the age of eight to seventeen, then went to sea as a cook and steward for some year, learning songs on board. After that he spent forty years back in the brickyard until retirement. He then started a new career as a coal-merchant, delivering in his own ship to Barton, Barrow and Goxhill, carrying up to as much as twenty tons in a day on his back until he “give over” at the age of seventy-three. He was also a very good dancer, winning a fine silver pencil in a competition at Barton, at the age of fifty-four.
Some of the information given by Grainger is unreliable. He says that Wray was born at Barrow on Humber, whereas the singer consistently cites Brigg as his birthplace in census returns. He also omits to mention that Wray was once a publican, at the Railway Inn in Albert Street, Brigg. In the introductory notes to the 1972 LP “Unto Brigg Fair” he is said to have gone to sea with a Mr Cross at Appleby, presumably based on Grainger’s notes. Appleby is a small inland village near Scunthorpe and the only Mr Cross listed in the local censuses was the long-serving vicar. There is also doubt about his age. Grainger says that he was eighty years old when he sang to him in 1906. According to the census returns from 1851 to 1901, he was born in about 1829. This is confirmed by the burial register, which gives his age as eighty-four when he died, in 1913. Either Grainger was less accurate in his note-taking than in his musical transcription, or Wray chose to mislead him.
Despite these inaccuracies, much valuable contextual detail is included. Grainger records that Wray was strongly opposed to the habit of singing in church and chapel choirs, believing that it had destroyed folk-song singing. He was also against piano accompaniment. He thought the fiddle was the finest instrument to dance to (his brother was a left-handed fiddler).
Grainger also includes details of George Wray’s singing style: “His style is more a triumph of personal characteristics than of abstract beauty.” He further describes how Wray uses “swift touches of swagger,” adds meaningless syllables and has a hollow vowel-sound perhaps due to his lack of teeth. He adds that his singing employs “pattering, bubbling, jerky, restless quick and briskly energetic effects.” He also commented on Wray’s excellent memory, noting that he recalled ninety-four verses in the sixteen songs he recorded, which was probably not his complete repertoire.
The songs noted by Grainger were:
- Lord Melbourne
- Lowlands Low (Golden Vanity)
- The Coach Going to London
- The Admiral
- When I’ve Money
- Lord Bateman
- The Sheffield Highwayman
- The Indian Lass
- The Bonny Bunch of Roses
- The American Stranger
- It’s of An Old Miser
- ’Merican Frigate (Paul Jones)
- Captain Ward
- Riding Down to Portsmouth
- 21st October
- Spurn Point
He is also believed to have known: