How it’s (Massachusetts) New York: Joe Derrane grew up in Boston, and influenced many, many musicians up and

Joe Derrane in 2006 (© Spinaci, at WikiMedia Commons)

down the East Coast.
How it’s Irish: Irish-American heritage Derrane was a master of Irish Trad accordion.

Word from accordion player and National Heritage Award-winner Billy McComiskey that Joe Derrane has died. Here is an article written for Irish Examiner USA in 2010, on the occasion of  concert honoring him presented in Connecticut.

Would you rather play, or talk? That was the question the Wolf Trap Festival in Vienna, Virginia, organizers put to Joe Derrane when he made his comeback there in 1994.

He was out of practice. For 35 years, he’d been playing other kinds of music-the Irish ballrooms had closed and so [pullquote]”One night I had to give up my chair; they set me on the kitchen counter. Twice I almost got knocked over. I took off my shoes and socks and stood in the sink!”[/pullquote]he switched to piano accordion, then to keyboard, playing jazz, pop, Jewish music, Italian music – while working his day job at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Then in 1993 his early 78 recordings were reissued on Rego on CD, and discovered by Earle Hitchner of the Irish Echo. Earle was bowled over. He called Joe up, wrote about him, and got Joe invited to Wolf Trap. The organizers said if he didn’t feel up to playing, he could just have a tent, talk about his life in music. People were eager to hear from him.

“I’d rather play!” Joe said.

There were 1200 people in the tent, and hardly a dry eye in the house by the end, Derrane recalls, talking to me from his home in Randall, Massachusetts, “They wouldn’t let me leave the stage. I had to pledge not to quit again.”

Since then, he has played with The Chieftains and been awarded a Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. And made seven albums. The latest, “Grove Lane “(available on Compass) will be celebrated this Saturday at the Shamrock Traditional Irish Society in Fairfield, Connecticut at a “Concert for the Ages” honoring Joe. The concert also celebrates Joe’s 80th year.

Onstage will be Dr. Mick Moloney (who will also give remarks), Joanie Madden, Seamus Egan, Billy McComiskey, Seamus Connolly, John Doyle, Brian Conway, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Whelan, Felix Dolan, Brendan Dolan, Tommy O’Sullivan, John McGann, Rose Flanagan, Patty Furlong, Margie Mulvihill, and Irish stepdancers Joe Dwyer and Melanie Deegan. And surprise guests, too.

If you don’t already have your tickets, try to get on the wait list. And don’t wait to get the album – a simple and rather spare album, Grove Lane also has a lot of emotion and beauty. “Waltzing with Anne,” which Joe wrote for his wife, who passed away in 2008, is a knockout, one Joe wrote “in the classic ballroom style.” And the traditional tunes shine – I particularly love “The Mooncoin Jig.”

“He’s a genius of a musician,”

says Mick Moloney. One of the pleasures of the new album are the notes, from Earle, Mick, Seamus Connolly, Joe Burke and  McComiskey.

For Gregg Burnett, who runs the Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society, the most important thing is

“to make sure it’s a terrific night for Joe. The second thing is to make sure it’s a terrific night for Joe.”

Joe Derrane

Joe Derrane

Proceeds from the night benefit this little folk org that could – the organization puts on about 15 concerts a year, some in theatres, some house concerts around the state, and is also the driving force behind the publication of fiddler Liz Carroll’s book of original tunes which came out this summer. All the musicians are donating their time for the event.

(The Joe Derrane evening will be at the Fairfield Theatre, an intimate venue of 225 seats.) Gerry Wenner is filming it, for the archives and for Joe’s family, and if we’re lucky it may end up on PBS. It’s the largest line-up Shamrock Traditional Irish Music Society has ever had.

At the event, Joe will talk a bit, about his life in music.

But will he resist being able to play?

“I know I will want to!” he says with a laugh. He speaks with bright energy and a charming Roxbury accent.

“I’ll speak and welcome people, then near the end again. My whole family is coming, my children and grandchildren.”

They told him to sit back and relax, don’t worry about playing.

He doesn’t worry about playing – he loves it.

When he was a little boy in Boston, his parents used to listen to a radio show featuring “Terry O’Toole the boy from Ireland.” Joe mostly ignored the show, but whenever the button accordion came on he would start running from wherever he was in his little apartment

“and stand in front of the radio and jump up and down. When they stopped I went back to whatever mischief I was into. By the time I was 10, I was driving them crazy!”

His parents tracked down a button accordion – no mean feat during the war years. Many of these instruments were made in Germany and Italy, who weren’t exporting to America. After finding the instrument, Joe’s parents contacted the button accordion player from the radio, Jerry O’Brien. He came to the house and gave him lessons.

By the time Joe was a teenager, he was playing at houseparties, called “kitchen rackets” because the linoleum floors were great for dancing.

“One night I had to give up my chair; they set me on the kitchen counter. Twice I almost got knocked over. I took off my shoes and socks and stood in the sink!”

By 17, he was making those 78s that still startle musicians with their drive, clarity, precision. Fiddler Seamus Connolly writes on the “Grove Lane liner” notes that when he first heard the 78 of the teenage Joe Derrane that “I felt as if I had been hit by a lighting bolt. … Never in my life had I heard such precision, creativity, lighting-speed descending triplets, phrasing, and tempo.”

You hear that on the new CD, which features Joe playing with guitarist John McGann. You also hear what makes Joe an inimitable player, especially on his five original compositions – his unusual understanding and working with chordal progressions.

“Back in the 40s, when I did the 78s, that was straight ahead playing. Jerry had the patience of a stone, but it was either right or it was wrong. There was no gray in between. Every note had to be very separate and very distinct. Today a lot of box players have a very legato feel. He would say, these are all eigth notes, and triplets have to be crisp! Bing bing bing, right on the money.”

But after 35 years playing showtunes, blues, some Polish tunes, along with jazz, Latin and Italian, his style changed. He played piano accordion and studied with piano teachers on keyboards. He planned to go into arranging, and took lessons with Berklee School of Music’s Dick Bobbit on chord study. And he brought that into his “comeback” at Wolf Trap on the button accordion. To prepare for that festival, Joe practiced six hours a day, soaking his arms in ice every few hours.

Billy McComiskey, perhaps the best known contemporary button accordion player today, listened to Joe Derrane growing up.

In fact, “he’s kind of responsible for my existence. The first night my mother and father went out, was to meet Joe Derrane.”

Billy’s family always had his records in the house, along with Michael Coleman and Joe Kimmel.

“When I was born, they had Joe Derrane on in the dining room, on the Victrola.”

For Billy, what Joe does is particularly Irish-American – emphasis American.

“He was playing Irish traditional music with a different kind of courage. If you sat in on a session in Ireland, it would be lovely and steady and great. Joe was almost like a marching band-just a nonstop forward kind of motion. As an Irish-American you had to take that approach, kind of blast it out, with confidence. It inspired me,”

says Billy, who calls himself a “hybrid,” an American with a strong East Galway influence.

The harmony Joe uses is there even on the older recordings, Billy says. When he knew he was going to play in this tribute concert, he decided to look at Joe’s music.

That’s when he realized “there were pretty few I could actually learn intact. That was a humbling experience for me. I am not up to playing Joe Derrane’s music! That tango – forget about it! I took it between the ears. He’s a genius. He isn’t playing better, or at the top of the heap. He is looking down at the heap from somewhere else.”

Some of it is technical, Joe’s use of chordal progression on what is essentially a diatonic instrument – using the button accordion as if it’s a chromatic piano accordion. But even when Billy slowed it down, he couldn’t play this “ridiculously complex music.” The musicians at the concert will play some of the tunes Joe popularized, and one of his compositions, “The Wolf Trap Promise.”

The tune refers to that promise not to stop playing again.

Billy says, Young players are going to be delving into these recordings and researching them, the way people research Michael Coleman recordings now. There is no way I can begin to criticize the new album one way or the other. I just have no idea what the man is doing, but I know it’s right.

And an awful lot of fun.”



Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.