Joe Derrane plays at his own pace

It remains one of the most compelling and fascinating stories in traditional Irish music that rises to the surface every time there is the occasion to trumpet the achievements of Joe Derrane, one of the finest accordion players to ever play Irish music. 

And since his stunning return to prominence in Irish traditional music circles in 1994 at the Washington D.C. Irish Folk Festival at Wolf Trap, those occasions have been numerous thanks to the prolific and technical brilliance of the native Boston musician.

His legacy will be richly celebrated in a very special night aptly named “A Concert for the Ages” on Saturday, November 13 in Fairfield, Connecticut to mark his 80th birthday this year.

The Joe Derrane saga is a very dramatic tale because it really encompasses three different chapters in the octogenarian’s very creative life.  

First as a teenager, he established himself as an early genius on the button accordion in Boston with recordings that spread his fame far and wide both in Ireland and America with a dexterity that was unrivaled. 
Like many musicians in the Boston area in the 1940s and 1950s, he was a mainstay around the Dudley Street dance halls that catered to an abundant supply of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, constantly in demand day and night at the historic dance halls into the fifties.  

By the time the Dudley Street Irish scene disappeared Joe had met his wife Annie and raised a family. He then took a very different musical path focusing on playing the piano accordion in non-Irish dance bands that had more regular weekend work to supplement his day job with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 

This second chapter removed Derrane from the Irish music scene so much to the point that many wondered if the talented box player had worn himself out and passed away in the prime of his life.

But it was the third chapter of his life story that seemed the most incredible and heart-warming because it opened up such creative doors for this accordion player extraordinaire who in his golden years has further shown the potential of the button accordion box.  

When Rego Records acquired the rights to the Copley Label where Derrane’s seminal early work appeared, they re-released it in the early 1990s. Earle Hitchner, then as now, was writing for the Irish Echo, and he tracked down Derrane for some comments on the re-issue. 

Hitchner, like many others, was “surprised” that Derrane was still above ground because he had fallen so far the Irish music scene.  Derrane was far from dead, literally or figuratively, but needed some motivation to get back into the button accordion, and thankfully he found it with an invitation to appear at Wolf Trap in 1995 and to record a new CD with the then flourishing Green Linnet Record Label. 

At the age of 64, the affable gentleman from Roxbury propelled himself back into Irish traditional music, and over the course of the past 16 years produced six CDs that not only displayed that legendary prowess and ingenuity on the button accordion, but his musical flair for composition in creating new tunes for the ages.  His comeback allowed him to work with many great musicians at festivals here and abroad and on his recordings.
It brought him much deserved recognition that reached a pinnacle when he was declared a National Heritage Fellow in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to American culture through Irish music.

Given Derrane’s history suggesting that anything could be a last act could be a foolish notion, so the release of his seventh CD in the marvelous third chapter of his life perhaps should be seen for what it is.  The Compass Records recording timed for release around the upcoming concert celebration is as poignant as it is brilliant. 
Entitled Grove Lane, it was recorded and produced by his musical partner and friend John McGann at the home Derrane shared with his late wife Annie Connaughton since 1959, before she passed away in July of 2008.   She was his inspiration and biggest fan and motivator and to whom the album is dedicated.

But it is Derrane who is the star burning the brightest now in this new recording which captures his overflowing talents as musician, composer, admirer of great music which he interprets in his inimitable style and for his articulate manner in pulling it all together which I have always admired. 

Though he has much to boast about, it simply isn’t Derrane’s style but at this opportune time, there are many who are happy to do it for him.

The special concert put together by the evening’s compere, Hitchner, who has meticulously chronicled the Derrane story for various publications since coaxing him back into the scene, and Shamrock Irish Traditional Music Society (STIMS) leader Gregg Burnett is noteworthy in itself.  

All of the musicians are donating their time and talents as a fundraiser for STIMS both to acknowledge the inspiration that Derrane has provided them as artists, and for the continuing support for traditional musicians from the grass roots group centered in Fairfield County in Connecticut for more than a decade.

The Fairfield Theatre is a small, intimate black box venue for around 200 people, and only a few seats remain for a night that will be storied and talked about for years and recorded for posterity. 

Among the star-studded cast are Mick Moloney, Joanie Madden, Seamus and Damien Connolly, Seamus Egan, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway, Brendan and Felix Dolan, John Doyle, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Whelan, Tommy O’Sullivan, John McGann, Mattie Connolly, Rose Flanagan, Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, Patty and Caitriona Furlong and singer Josephine McNamara and there could be some surprise artists as well. Golden School stepdancers Joe Dwyer and Melanie Deegan will also be there for some extra percussion.

For information and ticket details visit www.shamrockirishmusic.org or phone 203-259-1036 (Fairfield Theatre Company), but don’t waste a minute because this will be a sellout.

Upcoming Events


Coming up on Wednesday, November 10 at 8 p.m. is a great concert for fans of Scottish folk music at the Highline Ballroom in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan.  

The Battlefield Band is on tour, and it is not just any North American tour for the 40-decade old Scottish band that was at the heart of the Scots folk music revival while featuring many of the top musicians in the U.K. over the years. 

Founding member Alan Reid from Glasgow is set to retire from the band he helped form as a college student in 1969, and he is being replaced by Ewen Henderson who is making the tour as well. 

The links between Scotland and Ireland are many as symbolized by Reid’s poignant song “The Green and the Gold” about the Irish emigrants to Glasgow who while forced to leave their homeland were nearer to it than those who crossed to the “prairies” of America, many of whom never returned across the ocean.

It is a historic transition for sure but emblematic of a band that has seen many changes over the years without losing its core sound and emphasis on the vast repertoire in Scottish music.  Opening up this concert at the Highline is Alison Kinnard, one of the leading Celtic harpers (www.alisonkinnard.com) who is also married to Robin Morton, one of the founders of the Boys of the Lough.  

should be a great night of music sponsored in part by the venerable Pinewood Folk Music Club who have been involved in promoting Celtic music (there is a 20% discount for Pinewoods members online at www.highlineballroom.com using the term pinewoods) or call 212-414-5994 . . .

THE leader of the 25-year-old Cherish the Ladies troupe, Bronx-born Joanie Madden, has been collecting accolades all year for this achievement, and one of the latest to come her way will be Friday, November 12, from the Michael Coleman Branch of Comhaltas (CCE) based in the Bronx and upper Manhattan.  The ceili will be held at the Kerry Hall (305 McLean Avenue, Yonkers) where the music will be provided by the Ceol na Croi Ceili Band.  Call 718-822-2791 . . .

THE beautiful Irish dancer Jean Butler, who took the world by storm with her earlier success in Riverdance, has gone down a very different road in her dance career, moving towards modern dance and movement exploring its potential.   She will perform a solo choreography by Tere O’Connor for four performances from November 11-13 at the Dancespace Project in the East Village in Manhattan.   The new work entitled “Day” was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre and presented first at the Dublin Dance Festival earlier this year and most recently at the University of Limerick’s World Music Center.  The New York debut will be at St. Mark’s Church. Visit www.danspaceproject.com.

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