Sailors, servicemen and touring musicians

aerial view of airbase with runways across a field and large hangar with 'Burtonwood Army Airfield Elev 70' on the roof in huge letters

Burtonwood Air Force Base
© Aldon Ferguson/RAF Burtonwood Association

People travel to cities for pleasure but also for work. Some of these travellers have played a significant role in the musical life of cities, contributing to their musical diversity.

Sailors have played a significant role in the musical life of many port cities. This can be illustrated by their pivotal role in the transportation of salsa music to the Columbian city of Cali,

"particularly Caribbean and Black American sailors who worked on ships en route from New York, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Referred to locally as 'chombos', these sailors were admired for their worldly ways, their manner of dress, and their style of dancing. Not only did they bring their musical tastes and dance moves with them, they also brought recordings of these sounds." (Waxer, 2002: 72)

Similarly, during the 1940s and 1950s Liverpool had a direct shipping link with North America. Liverpool sailors who worked on those ships were often referred to locally as 'Cunard Yanks' and were known for their distinctive style of dress that was similar to later 'mod' styles. Some of these sailors returned from their trips with recordings of early US country music and rhythm and blues that were difficult or expensive to obtain in England. This has often been singled out as a significant influence on the development of the so-called 'Liverpool Sound' of the 1960s - though this is a contentious argument that has been dismissed by some local music historians.

Servicemen have also brought new musical sounds to Liverpool and other cities. The popular music scholar Simon Frith, for example, suggests that:

"The United States' influence on international popular music, beginning with the worldwide showing of Hollywood talkies, was accelerated by the US entry into World War II - members of the service became the record industry's most effective exporters." (1987: 63)

The Burtonwood US military airbase, which operated between 1943 and 1993, was located just a few miles east of Liverpool. During the 1950s it was the largest base of its kind in Europe. The servicemen stationed there regularly visited Liverpool where they mixed with local musicians and exchanged musical recordings and influences.

"The American GIs always had lots of records. We couldn't buy the records off them, but we used to nick 'em anyway. The GIs used to bring guitars and stuff and start playing at parties. Many times we'd say, "What's this guy doing in the army?" Excellent voices and singers. It was like a privilege to sit in with them and sing a few harmonies here and there." (Liverpool musician)

Touring musicians have also had a major impact on local audiences and contributed to local musical diversity. Due to its direct shipping link with the US, for example, many US musicians visited Liverpool at the start of their UK tours. They included the Virginia Minstrels, blackface comedians who pioneered the minstrel show and opened their British tour in Liverpool in 1843; Pell's Ethiopian Serenaders, accompanied by William Henry Lane (pioneer of the 'Tennessee Double-shuffle'), who performed in Liverpool in 1848; the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of predominantly ex-slaves, who visited Liverpool several times during the 1870s to perform Negro spirituals; Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong who performed in Liverpool during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.