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.” (Vol.3, no.12 (May 1908) pp.147-242) 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; Joseph Taylor, George Gouldthorpe and George Wray himself.
"A tough,... worldly and prosperously coloured personality. He was born at Barrow-on-Humber, and was eighty years old when he sang to me in 1906. From the age of eight to seventeen he worked in a brickyard, after which he went to sea as a cook and steward for some years, learning some of his songs aboard ship. After that he again worked at a brickyard for forty years; and later on again, he sold coals, taking them to Barton, Barrow, Goxhill etc., in his own ship,and also carrying them round on his back...as much as twenty tons in a day. He carried coals till he was aged seventy-three and then he “give over”... He used to be a great dancer. He took a prize (a fine silver pencil) for dancing in a competition at Barton, at the age of fifty-four; performing to the accompaniment of a fiddle, which he considers better than anything to dance to." Op.cit. p.165-166
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 Bob Thomson's introductory notes to the 1972 LP “Unto Brigg Fair”(Leader Records LEA 4050 p.4) 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 (Barton St. Peter's, no.948, 22nd April 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.” (JFSS, op.cit. p.166) 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.” (ibid) 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 Roud 233
- Lowlands Low (Golden Vanity) Roud 122
- The Coach Going to London Roud 1630
- Nelson's Monument Roud 1522
- When I’ve Money Roud 23065
- Lord Bateman Roud 40 Child 53
- The Sheffield Highwayman Roud 490
- The Indian Lass Roud 2326
- The Bonny Bunch of Roses Roud 664
- The American Stranger Roud 1081
- It’s of An Old Miser Roud 548
- ’Merican Frigate (Paul Jones) Roud 967
- Captain Ward Roud 244 Child 287
- Riding Down to Portsmouth Roud 1534
- Twenty-First of October Roud 522
- Spurn Point Roud 599
According to Thomson in his Unto Brigg Fair notes, he is also believed to have known: