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Ithaca Music and the footprint of inspiration from I-Town Records

I didn’t know you could play reggae music without a B3 and leslie. I didn’t know you could play a B3 sitting down. Everyone in Ithaca did it standing up. 
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I grew up in Naples, NY – a small village in the Finger Lakes. Naples is distant little sister of sorts to Ithaca, the heady city three lakes to the east. Growing up it was “Ithaca Music” we listened to, and once a year we all gathered to be part of it’s community for days of relentless dancing at the Grassroots Music Festival.

Ithaca has the right ingredients to build community- excellent universities, a history supporting local business, social diversity, green space, etc, but it has done more than build community, Ithaca has built a style of music all it’s own. The sound coming out of the city finds it’s voice by borrowing elements of folk, zydeco, reggae, and world music. Much of the Ithaca sound was documented, promoted, and sold via I-Town Records which sprung up with the release of All Time (1996) the debut album from John Brown’s Body. In it’s mission statement, I-Town Records was equated to “practical socialism” and was founded by and run by the musicians making the albums that the label put out.  “I-Town Records is a collective, a circle not a pyramid shaped hierarchy. The basic tenets of the label are that in unity there is strength and that cooperation means progress.”

You could feel that the faith in this idea reverberated through it’s budding roster. You saw it at live shows where a merchandise table would be set up that featured all the label’s releases with none given higher priority over any other. $1 from each CD sold was put back into the pot to invest in upcoming releases.

In a 2002 article Nate ‘Silas’ Richardson, then a member of John Brown’s Body said, “Competition is inevitable, I like to think of the future of I-Town Records as a river that is flowing. We’d like to keep music happening – help and encourage younger bands to record and tour. Hopefully that will nurture a music scene that becomes more and more productive and beautiful.”

It has been 20 years since the label’s debut release, and I can’t help wonder what questions am I not asking the folks that started I-Town? How can I learn from them? Kevin Kinsella, I-Town’s founder is a friend of mine now, why haven’t I called him to ask? From 2007 – 2010 I went on tour with Elliot Martin. I could have asked him so much- but I did not know. I wasn’t ready.

What happened to I-Town Records? Internet searches are turning up blank results. It’s hard to find a catalogue, or any current info. Where did it go?  I am almost too afraid to ask those questions. We just launched a label (Rootfire Cooperative) with a similar ethos as I-Town and I am fearful of what I might find out.

How can we do this the way it’s suppose to be done? How can we spread music through exceptional storytelling, authentic marketing, responsible advertising, and a coordinated effort to keep our publicity, radio, and business management partnerships healthy and strong?

Then there is this whole other thing- the significance of time thing. We started the Rootfire Cooperative with a revolving loan system….every dollar invested into the music still needs to come back in, in order to go out again. It’s like making compost, and helps everything grow, but it takes time to work. I read recently that farmers are hungriest in the spring. That’s us, now. Literally.

Two weeks from today Rootfire Cooperative drops it’s first release, Golden from The Movement. A few months after that we are releasing an album from HIRIE, and a few months after that one from Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad (incase you missed it, that was the soft-release about what we are up too…and…all three of these albums are exceptional).

Kevin, Elliot, and Nate are gong on their third decade creating local music in Ithaca- and it’s still reaching the world. Below are some of my favorite tunes that came out of Ithaca when as growing up in Naples. Each song has the Ithaca style– community and collaboration focused. Yup, reggae is in the mix- you can hear it in the dubs, you can feel it in the buttery B3, and it wraps you up in the sticky of the guitar. But be sure and listen to to the other stuff too, the sounds of folk, americana, and zydeco. Deep stuff. Healthy stuff.

I listened to all these songs as a young fan, burning them onto mix CDs, played through a Discman in my 1988 Subaru GL Wagon. This music helped raise me. I hope someday, maybe 20 years from now someone will look back on the early Rootfire Cooperative releases and feel a connection to how the music helped raise them. To do that, we need your help, and I need to get better at asking for it, and inviting you in. I hope I can give Rootfire away to you all someday. Literally. To let it go to you and grow through you. We all return to the roots.

Elliot Martin (2001)

Kevin Kinsella – (2000)

Sim Redmond Band – (2000)

Sunny Weather – (2001)

10 Ft. Ganja Plant – (2000)

Justin Hinds + John Brown’s Body – (2002) *Rehearsal

David Solid Gould – (2001)

Donna The Buffalo – (2006)

Plastic Nebraska – (1997)

Featured Top Photo credit: BobisTraveling from Flickr

Licensed freely under the Creative Commons License. Adapted by Seth Herman. Adaptions include and were limited to filtering the colors and cropping the photo.

Seth founded Rootfire while he was managing a group of influential modern reggae acts, including The Green, John Brown’s Body, and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. The goal of the project has always been to connect the people who participate in the modern reggae movement.