| The Matrix | Rhetoric of Reggae Music | Reggae Links | Dread Library Catalog |

John Brown’s Body: An American Reggae Band

Digging Roots in Farm Country

Steven Pettrone

The surrounding landscape yields rolling hills, beautiful gorges with waterfalls that leave your mouth gaping in awe, some of the world’s finest wineries, and farmland as far as the eye can see. Rooted in Ithaca, a small artsy community in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, comes a sound so cultural, so mystical, and so natural. Amongst a slew of great local musicians comes John Brown’s Body, a roots reggae sound that captivates audiences, and spills the universal message of thanks and praises. Before we can truly understand the roots of an American-based reggae band that carries a Jamaican sound and universal philosophy, we must first get to the roots of reggae music in United States from the beginning.

The origins of roots sounds in the U.S. came primarily from Jamaican communities that were set up in major cities such as New York, Washington D.C., and Miami. New York City was home of the first reggae centered recording studio was established. The credit for such a landmark establishment would have to go to Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes, a singer who recorded with Prince Buster in the early 1960’s. The recording business started out as a partnership with ‘Munchie’ Jackson. Its location was at 4731 White Plains Road in the Bronx. By the mid 1970’s, Barnes was running the studio alone, using his own session band, Reckless Breed. He was also recording Jamaican singers that were local to the area, including names like Wayne Jarrett. Barnes also produced recordings of Jamaican singers visiting the states, including such artists as Sugar Minott and Horace Andy. During this same time period, Barnes was also able to record a string of dub albums as well. Bullwackie was the only U.S. studio to put out significant reggae sound prior to the 1980’s (Barrow 1997).

HC & F Studios was opened up in the 1980’s on Long Island and was run solely by Phillip Smart who had worked in Jamaica with the great King Tubby. Smart was able to record in his studio, sounds that would eventually make it into the dancehalls of Jamaica. Dirtsman’s "Hot This Year" is an example of the recording that gave its origin to Smart’s studio on Long Island. Today, HC & F Studio is the leading reggae-recording studio in the states (Barrow 1997).

More and more reggae-recording studios began to pop up including Jah Life, also making its home in the Big Apple, owned and operated by Hyman Wright and Percy Chin. Also within New York City was Don One and Living Room, both reggae studios based in Brooklyn. Washington D.C. made home to Delroy Wright’s studio. Miami, Florida made room for Skengdon, run by Kenneth Black, and also Heavy Beat, run by Willie Lindo. Both Skengdon and Heavy Beat produced sounds that would eventually make it to the Jamaican dancehalls. (Barrow, 1997)

Roots music in America can also be traced back to the city of Houston, Texas where a singer/actor by the name of Johnny Nash made his home. Nash was one of the first U.S. based reggae recording artists. He is also partly responsible for getting Americans interested in Bob Marley. Nash visited Jamaica in the late 60’s.It was there that he first heard the energetic rhythms of rocksteady. While in Jamaica, Nash recorded with a group of the finest musicians in Kingston. He put out two songs in particular, "Hold Me Tight," and a version of "Cupid," with credits given to Sam Cooke. After meeting Marley and realizing Marley’s strong songwriting ability, Nash recorded some of his songs, utilizing the Wailers for the backing rhythms. He recorded such songs as "Stir It Up" and "Guava Jelly." (Barrow, 1997) Some of Nash’s own songs that made a presence in the U.S. include "I Can See Clearly Now," and "Hold Me Tight" (Foster 1999).

Soon, American artists began to capture the sound of Jamaica into their song repertoires. For example, "Me and Julio Down by the School Yard," and "Mother and Child Reunion" by Paul Simon were both recorded in Jamaica. They clearly have a defiant Jamaican sound to them. Other artists that were not native to the U.S. but were a major part of the music industry like Eric Clapton helped to broaden the acceptance of reggae within the U.S. Clapton covered Marley’s hit, "I Shot the Sheriff," while Blondie recorded a version of "Tide is High" by John Holt/Paragons. The Police also brought a reggae sound to the U.S. as well (Foster, 1999).

As the U.S moved into the 80’s, more and more local reggae bands, commonly known as ‘homegrown’ bands began popping up all around the country. It is common for these more local bands to have a member who is from Jamaica, or another Caribbean island, or even Africa. For example, Clinton Fearon, a former Gladiator, formed his own group in the U.S., which operates out of Seattle. Many of these bands have been inspired by reggae greats like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Burning Spear to name a few.

Another way in which Americans were first exposed to reggae music happened upon the release of the 1970 Jamaican film, "The Harder They Come." University students and anti-establishment groups liked it because of portrayal of revolutionary acts and ideas. The soundtrack to the movie also caught the attention of many music lovers all over the country. It was able to move many Americans in a way that showed the success that reggae has in communicating a powerful message through music.

Amongst bands that pioneered the American Reggae scene was a group of five young kids from the East Bay Area of California, going by the name of The Shakers. The Shakers were the first American Reggae band to sign with a major recording label. That label was Elektra-Asylum Records, with whom they released "Yankee Reggae" in 1976. After releasing "Yankee Reggae," The Shakers toured the U.S. They helped to spread reggae music to fans of rock music, showing them sheer power of this unique sound. They also helped to introduce Jamaican singers and songwriters to the American audiences. The Shakers opened up for such rock acts as Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Pointer Sisters, J.D. Souther, and the Amazing Rhythm Aces. Even with the Shakers success, Elektra-Asylum wasn’t fit for the job of promoting the new sound that The Shakers were producing. They did seem to make it quite big on the dance floors in Berkeley, California, Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

For their next record, the Shakers wanted to produce with someone who was familiar with the industry, and one who could properly promote their record. Still under Elektra-Asylum, they asked Bob Marley to produce their next recording. He agreed under the condition that they would record a few of his songs. Unfortunately there was tension with the record company, and the Shakers were dropped from the Elektra-Asylum label before having a chance to work with Marley (The Shakers Homepage).

Ron Rhoades, Drummer/Singer/Producer has been the leader of the Shakers since their establishment in 1973. The other members have changed from time to time, as well as the band’s name, which became the "Fabulous Titans" in 1980. The Fabulous Titans became a popular act in Cuba where they became the first American band ever to be invited to tour the island, selling out at each venue of their three-week tour (The Shakers Homepage).

One of the first American singers to record in Jamaica was Martha Valez. Bob Marley produced her "Escape from Babylon" album in 1976. Blue Riddim was another U.S. reggae band that traveled to Jamaica, and was he first American band to play at Jamaica’s famous Reggae Sunsplash. As reggae in the States becomes more popular we see such groups as Neon Prophet and Shagnatty from Arizona. West Virginia gives home to the sound of Rasta Rafiki who I’ve had the opportunity to see play at the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York. Their sound is predominantly roots oriented from my recollection.

More bands within the American reggae scene include Ben Hunter, Irie Vibrations, the Elements, and the Shepherd Band coming rooting in Louisiana. Monty Montgomery, Ashadu, and King Errison come from Georgia. From North Carolina comes such acts as One Tribe, Ras Alan, Gurneyman, and from the appropriately named town of Zionville comes the Lions. Several reggae bands make their home in Texas including Urban Roots, Root 1, Ragga Massive, and Rashani.

Massachusetts seems to be the East Coast headquarters for reggae music. Heartbeat Records, a famous label in reggae recording holds its headquarters in Massachusetts. Boston’s Mystic Jammers have the Lions Eye label and store. The Black Rebels make their home in Massachusetts as well.

Upstate New York gave birth to the Tribulations in the late 80’s. Ithaca native Kevin Kinsella at age 15, and his best friend Josh Newton headed the band. The Tribulations played some hometown gigs, and eventually were given the opportunity to open up for the legendary group, Toots and the Maytals. As band members went off to college in Boston, the Tribulations stayed together. While in Boston, the foundation of the band was set up. Many of the fresh members were new to reggae music. "The majority didn’t know anything about reggae, so we literally taught them the ABC’s. Of course, it was reggae through our eyes, and seeing that we weren’t Jamaican, I think it lent a unique flavor to our music." Says Kinsella. (Green, 1999) A strong local support was brought about by the bands original sound, as well as their fine musicianship.

Newton quit the Berklee School of Music and the Tribulations went on tour. Kinsella explains, "We wanted to play South by Southwest in 1991, so we set up a tour on the way down, and another on the way up-after that, we just kept going."(Green, 1999) In 1992, the Tribulations entered into the Yamaha Soundcheck Competition, and beating 4,000 other bands they made it to the finals. In 1993, the Tribulations played for tourists in Negril, Jamaica. They released tow albums, "The Gate," and "Daddy Good Pieces." They continued with the competition in Japan, and soon after Kinsella would quit the band. "I was young and felt we should have been further along," he says, "I thought we deserved more, I guess, and figured it would be better to go out gracefully. I didn’t want to become a ‘bar star,’ so I just decided I was stepping out." (Green, 1999)

After abandoning the Tribulations, Kinsella began to seek the more spiritual side of reggae, opposed to the more mainstream rock sound that was present in the Tribulations. He found interest in a more stripped-down acoustic sound. Unexpectedly, Tommy Benedetti (drums), Lee Hamilton (saxophone), and three other Tribulations members found interest in the new roots sound. Shortly after, John Brown’s Body was formed. "We got recentered spiritually and musically and knew what we wanted. We just thought it would be better to come with a new name and come fresh." Says Kinsella.

The name, John Brown’s Body pays homage to John Brown, the freedom fighter and abolitionist of the 1850’s. In 1859, John Brown was hanged for trying to arm insurrection by raiding a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. "It’s a name of contradiction." Says Kinsella (Personal interview). "I saw John Brown as a paradigm and a paradox of American history. Someone who fights for justice and god’s will using a gun…To me, he’s a white man fighting for an African cause. And because we’re basically a white group singing liberation music for black people, I see a real parallel there. He’s an underground rebel, a freedom fighter." (Steffens, 1998) The band’s new mission is paralleled to John Brown’s fight for everyone’s freedom.

Being a predominantly white reggae band made for some bumps in the road of triumph for the band. "A lot of people can’t get over that hurdle, that we’re Americans playing rats music," Kinsella says. The members of the band were not born into the Rasta culture. They took it upon themselves to adopt it (Oksenhorn, 1999). Kinsella finds it a challenge to be a white man in position often dominated by blacks. He explains his view on the matter by stating, "You don’t have to be a black man from the Mississippi Delta to play the blues anymore, and you don’t have to be a German to play Wagner of Bach. Sometimes it takes time for music to be universally accepted." (Oksenhorn, 1999)

John Brown’s Body is a band that does not seek the commercial sound that is radiating from new reggae bands both in Jamaica, and from the U.S. The focus is not on the more popular pop sounding reggae, instead, the focus is on the roots sound. It seems as though reggae has become weakened in both message and sound recent years. It seems to have picked up a lot of baggage along the way. "Reggae is not meant to be a commercial music, and when it got so popular, maybe God got displeased. Maybe this music is cursed. Reggae music, to me, is sacred because it’s calling out to God. All music should be sacred, but reggae doubly so." Kinsella believes that the public embrace of reggae music is weak because of its affiliation with the repatriation movement of moving blacks back to Africa. Instead, people should see the biblical references as well as the universal messages that are incorporated (Oksenhorn, 1999).

Kinsella first heard the thumping reggae beat at the age of 12. He and his father were driving in Ireland when Bob Marley’s "One Love/People Get Ready" came on the radio. Both he and his father were turned on by the sound, and bought the album. "I thought it was Christian funk music,"(Green, 1999) Kinsella says, recognizing the lyrics from church, and the biblical references.

In September of 1997, John Brown’s Body made Rolling Stone Magazine’s alternative top ten chart with their first album release, "All Time." This self released album collected rave reviews from critics nationwide. Track number 5, "Vanity," was used in the HBO movie "The Substitute 2." "All Time" is my personal favorite in terms of albums by the band. Maybe this is due to the fact that it was their first release, but more likely because of it’s great collection of tunes. "Tree of Life" is my favorite track. I interpret this particular tune to be about Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is the home of Kevin Kinsella, and other band members as well. The opening lyrics express the following:

"This is our town.

A place we belong.

This is our town.

A place we feel strong."

The general theme of "Tree of Life" as I see it, is about living together in the community of Ithaca. Kinsella is giving thanks and paying homage to the small city community that he hails from.

As far as crediting the singers and the players on the "All Time" album, Kinsella takes lead vocals as well as harmony, rhythm and acoustic guitar. Josh Neuman rips it up on the bass, Tommy Benedetti takes the drums and percussion, Sam Godin on the keys, Lee Hamilton on sax, and Paul Merill on trumpet and flugelhorn. Charisse Lucente, Yvette Lucente, and Elliot Martin take the harmony vocals. I found it fabulous to see that Jeb Puryear was credited with pedal steel on the track, "Give Some Love." Puryear is one of the leading members of another native Ithacan band, Donna the Buffalo, who I’ve had the chance to see over twenty times in my life.

The title track to the CD, also the opening track, makes for a great introduction to the bands style, as well as their prominent use of the horn section. The first time I heard this album, I fell in love with it. It led me to increase the size of my reggae collection, and the growing hasn’t stopped yet. "All Time" is a classic John Brown’s Body album and should be a part of every reggae fans collection.

In 1998, the band signed with their first major record label, Shanachie Entertainment. In a telephone interview, Kinsella remarked, "To be able to meet him [Randall Grass] was a great honor. It seemed like the right thing to do…. a lot of the records I grew up with and listened to were on Shanachi records. They don’t want to change our music, just promote it." I got the feeling that Kinsella was very happy with the band’s commitment to the Shanachi label, and also with the record companies treatment of their music as well. I think it is very important for a band to work with a company that doesn’t want to change their sound just to increase album sales. Many times it doesn’t increase sales at all, and in the end, nobody is happy. Within the Shanachie Record label, John Brown’s Body is amongst such reggae greats as Alpha Blondie, Black Uhuru, Dennis Brown, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Freddy McGregor, Bunny Wailer, and Yellowman to name a few. (Shanachie Website)

The band’s first release with Shanachie was the album, "Among Them." The title track and also the first selection on the disk makes reference to the bible.

In my house, there is a picture on the wall.

It asks "Who are these people?"

Then my vision is restored

It is them who have suffered,

All of God’s children, now going to Zion.

I want to be among them

They’re going to Zion

Kevin explains that "Among Them" is "a song about hope. It refers to the book of revelations, in which God looks out and sees all the people and asks who they are. They are the chosen who have suffered and been found worthy to be in Zion, a holier place. So this is a song about the feeling of hope that we will be among the righteous, loving people." (Steffens, 1998)

Track three on the "Among Them" album titled "This Is Not The End" focuses the idea that even with our great advancements in technology, we are still battling with social issues that have been present for centuries. The last four lines of the first verse read as follows:

On the walls in the shopping malls

I see the images of Bob Marley.

Still Roman soldiers are outside

Slaying black youths of the nation.

Kevin explains, "This is my favorite track lyrically, because I see Bob Marley as a prophet of today, not so different from those times Jesus walked the earth. High and mighty people think we’re so advanced with our technology, but the same elements of struggle with evil are still ever present. There are still, and always will be, wars, and rumors of war. Like Joseph Hill has said, ‘They never love the lord and prophet in his time, how can you expect them to love God in this time?’ So I ask, what has really changed with the coming of the third millennium? But I want people to know that this is not the end of things; life will go on." (Steffens, 1998)

I love the message in "This is Not the End." It is such a reality check for today’s society. I find it interesting how we can put people on the moon, but we can’t stop hunger, or war. Our priorities aren’t at all in line, and it is in part due to greed. I feel that the song also brings a message of hope, as the title suggests. We can never give up, if we do, we have lost the battle.

I talked with Kevin in a telephone interview about his style of writing, and the style of reggae that is expressed by John Brown’s Body, a reggae band amidst an era that seems to be almost dominated by the dancehall sound. "For me," he says, "I come from the country and I play a country form of reggae music." Explaining in more detail, referencing Rocker T., "same age as me…. he grew up in the city and his sound is more dancehall oriented." (Personal Interview)

Kinsella is the son of a farmer who came from Ireland to make a living in the United States, working hard in the process. He was successful and Kevin gives meaning to his songs of thanks and praises by stating in an online video interview, "I have nothing to want. I have to turn and give this all away." He takes the unselfish role of a songwriter who wants to give back for all that he has been given. He is thankful for what his family has given to him, and thankful for what God ahs given to him. I the same interview he explains, "My songs are songs of praises and recognition that all good things come from God and blessed are they who know and trust." (J.B.B. Website-Multimedia)

In the fall of 1999, John Brown’s Body opened up for Burning Spear at Higher Ground in Winooski, Vermont. During my telephone conversation with Kevin, I got the feeling that he looks at Winston Rodney as being a great individual with great intentions. He explained to me that Spear makes a living and puts his children through college by spreading the philosophy of Marcus Garvey through his music. "He espouses the true Garvey philosophy." Kinsella says. "He’s brought a deep reverence in my life about Africa. I’ve been seeing and playing with Burning Spear for 16 years now." He adds.

I recall seeing Burning Spear at the Grassroots Festival back in July of ’96. Come to find out, none other than John Brown’s Body opened up for them that night. As for the Grassroots Festival itself, Kinsella simply states, "It’s legendary." I have attended the festival religiously for the past six years and it has yielded a truly wonderful experience each time. I’ve never witnessed such a collection of bands, diverse in style, age, and origin. The musical groups come from as close as the town of Trumansburg, New York, where the festival is held, and as far as Africa and other international nations. They all come together to raise money and awareness for arts, education, and the fight against AIDS.

Early on in the year 2000, John Brown’s Body released their second CD with the Shanachie record label titled "This Day." "This Day" contains 13 powerful tracks that truly show the strengths and the message of John Brown’s Body. A few changes to the band’s lineup has occurred since their first album. The current lineup taken from the "This Day" album cover includes the following: Kevin Kinsella on lead and harmony vocals as well as rhythm guitar; Tommy Benedetti on drums; David Gould on bass; Nate Richardson on lead and rhythm guitar, B-3, clavinet, and moog; Elliot Martin covers vocals and tambourine; Lee Hamilton on tenor sax, and harmony vocals; and Chris Welter on trumpet and harmony vocals.

"Land Far Away" is a track that shows the consistency within Kinsella’s message through his music. An excerpt from the beginning of the song reads:

They tell us of a land that is far, far away

Where there’s no night, there is only day.

No more crying, that’s what they say.

I don’t know if I’m going to the land that’s far away.

Trodding along, trodding along time

I’ll tell them of a place outside their time and space,

No future to worry about, no past to fill with regret

Just live your life, come on, you try your best,

And don’t let anybody say this life is just a test.

In my telephone conversation with Kevin, he threw me a line of his philosophy that rightfully fits into the meaning of this song: "The success is today and don’t always be looking for some promise land." I think it is vital that we focus on what we have accomplished today, and focus on what we have now: later isn’t going to matter if you can’t see what is happening now and be thankful for it. I find this to be a general theme within Kinsella’s lyrical message on all three of John Brown’s Body’s albums.

Upon listening to the album, "This Day," one will discover that track four, and five are reversed if you refer to the cover for the order of songs. This is just an interesting phenomenon that I don’t have an answer for. In any case, the title track "This Day" is a song with a great message about life. The first verse of the song reads as follows:

Listen to the words you say,

When you speak you pray.

You say a word and it shall be,

Be mindful of the words you speak.

Come on you take a walk down Freedom Street,

The most high who you check and you greet.

Say you want to live and be free,

Choose your words so carefully.

I interpret this "This Day" to be about living life with respect to others. There are basically two paths that you can take, the right or the wrong. The right way to live is where the focus is on the positive aspects of our lives today like love and children. This is the path where one becomes selfless, giving, loving, and respectful. This is, according to the song, "the right way to live, and to die." The wrong path leads us into a state of war with ourselves and with others. We don’t make progress within ourselves on this path of negativity. I think the song also focuses on words that we say. We sometimes use words in a way that is weak, wrong, and often confusing. What we say to people may end up effecting them for the rest of their lives. We need to realize that words are powerful and that when we speak, we really are praying. We need to be conscious of what we are saying and how our audience interprets it. This song really gives me a lot of different feelings, and the listener can interpret it in many different ways. I’m not sure what message Kinsella himself is portraying in this song but in any fashion, it is a song that makes the listener think, and open his or her mind.

From research and listening, I can conclude that John Brown’s Body is a reggae band that focuses primarily on the positive aspects of life. Their sound is upbeat in message and in tempo. Each song creates a new feeling inside the listener, but the messages are still clear and not drown out by the music. I can’t even begin to explain how much this band has effected my life. Their beat is uplifting and will put you on your feet immediately. I haven’t found a single person whose heard them, and who hasn’t fallen in love with their incredible sound, and their universal message of thanks and praises.


Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. Reggae: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Ltd. 1997

Foster, Chuck. Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications. 1999

Green, Joshua. John Brown’s Body Press: "Anatomically Correct," 19 August 1999,, 11 April 2000., John Brown’s Body Biography,, 10 April, 2000., John Brown’s Body Multimedia,, 8 April 2000.

Kinsella, Kevin. Personal Interview. 14 April 2000.

Oksenhorn, Stewart. John Brown’s Body Press: "A White Boy Who Stole Reggae," 25 January 1999,, 11 April 2000., The Shakers Bio,, 10 April, 2000.

Steffens, Roger. John Brown’s Body: Among Them liner notes. 1999


John Brown’s Body. All Time. I-Town Records, 1996.

John Brown’s Body. Among Them. Shanachie, 1999.

John Brown’s Body. This Day. Shanachie, 2000.