Joe Derrane, born in Boston, MA in 1930 to Irish immigrant parents developed a deep and abiding love for the accordion and traditional Irish music from a very early age. Around 1940, he started studying the 10 key melodeon with the great Jerry O'Brien, who had immigrated from Kinsale, Co. Cork. By the time he was 14, Joe was active in the then popular house party scene. By the time he was 17, he had purchased a 2-row instrument (D/C#) and had become a fixture in the legendary ballroom scene in the Dudley Street section of Roxbury. He was also playing regular live radio shows on Saturday nights. The burgeoning interest in his playing had blossomed to the point where he was asked to make the first of what would turn out to be a series of eight (16 sides) 78rpm recordings over the next few years. Those recordings, marked by his unique styling, vigor, and flawless execution, stunned everyone in the Irish music world.

The late 1950s ushered in the demise of the ballroom scene, and a major loss of income for Joe, now married with family responsibilities. With fewer venues in which to play, Joe turned to the only acceptable avenue open to him. He sold his beloved button box, bought a new piano accordion, and embarked on a new adventure in the "pop" field. Although he had tried, unsuccessfully, to present traditional Irish music on his new instrument, he was pushed deeper and deeper into the "pop" field, and he virtually disappeared from the Irish scene. In the late 80s he retired from music altogether.

In 1993, Rego Records reissued his 78rpm recordings in album form on CD and cassette. A huge wave of interest was generated all over again, and he was asked (late 1993) to perform at the prestigious Wolftrap Festival in Vienna, West Virginia in May of 1994. Using an old accordion borrowed from a friend, and by dint of a prodigious effort, Joe got ready for what he viewed as "just once more, for old times‚ sake"...a final performance to cap his career the way he started it...with Irish music and a "box". The response to that performance was astonishing. Some 1200 people applauding, cheering, and many crying (including Joe) welcomed him back. He had come home! His return to the box and the music has been, over and over again, termed as the greatest comeback in the history of Irish music.

Since then, Joe has recorded four new albums..."GIVE US ANOTHER" and "RETURN TO INIS MOR" for the Green Linnet label; "THE TIE THAT BINDS" for the Shanachie label, and "IRELAND'S HARVEST" with Frankie Gavin for the Mapleshade label. His work appears on a number of compilations, including the 3 CD set of "PLANET SQUEEZEBOX".

Joe has been profiled in such newspapers as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Dublin Times, The Boston Herald, The Boston Globe, and The Patriot Ledger, in addition to various folk music magazines and other publications in the U.S. and abroad. He has given numerous radio and television performances, including "The Pure Drop" series on RTE, Ireland‚s national television. Joe was also the subject of and excellent Frank Ferrel documentary "As Played By Joe Derrane".

His concert performances have taken him across much of the U.S. from Maine to Alaska, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands...and into such prestigious venues as Boston's Symphony Hall with the Chieftans and The Boston Pops, The Kennedy Performing Arts Center, and the White House.

In February of 1998, (Albany, NY) Joe was inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann North American Province "Hall Of Fame" in recognition of his impact on, and contribution to, Irish Traditional Music.

Interview with Joe Derrane
Taped by Paul Mac Donald, August, 2004

PAUL: You know, Joe, your career In Irish music is such an amazing drama. There you were, a Boston teenager in the late ’40s, starring five nights a week in those great Dudley Street Irish ballrooms, cutting those history-making 78s, and on the radio every Sunday. Come the fifties, Boston’s Irish music scene decays into Tin Pan Alley sentimentality— so you drop the button box completely. Forty years later, after most Irish music fans figured you had died, you show up at the prestigious Wolf Trap Festival and knock the entire audience on its ear. I’d love to hear the story of that stunning comeback in your own words.

JOE: The truth is that when I was asked to play that Wolf Trap for that concert back in May of 1994, I really thought it was for a final performance which would put a proper cap on my career. To get ready, since I hadn’t played the button box for fortyyears, I practiced six, seven hours a day, seven days a week, and that went on for 6 months. Mind numbing, and that was just to get ready for what I thought would be one final performance. I knew a lot of people were rooting for me, so I was determined that it would be the best I could give. There was always the little voice in the back of my mind questioning “What if?” or “Suppose I can’t?” So I practiced and practiced, and practiced some more. I heard my daughter telling some people at Wolf Trap that she had never heard me play the box while she was growing up—but in the months before the concert, no matter what time of day or night she would call the house, she would hear me playing in the background. The first 6 weeks were hard, but eventually everything fell into line.

All that effort was going into this one performance—just once more for old times’ sake. I was totally stunned by the reception I got at the Wolf Trap concert! It was unbelievable: people crying all over the place, including me. At the end when I had to come back for an encore, Joe Wilson made me raise my right hand and swear to all those people that I would never quit playing the button box again. I will keep that promise as long as I am able to play.

As it turned out, my “final” performance wasn’t final. A number of people had taken a chance on me. Earle Hitchner took a big chance in his conviction that I could do this again. It was Earle who planted that seed so deeply in me that I just had to try. Certainly, he had a lot more confidence in me than I had in myself. Then Mike and Marleen Denny, prime movers of the Wolf Trap Festival, took a chance that I could still cut it. And after the concert, Wendy Newton took a chance on recording me.

Soon, I found myself booked to play with various musicians at festivals scattered all over the place. I had to do some adapting. The way I play is, I think, rooted in my experiences in the mid ’40s, when the music clubs flourished in Roxbury and Dorchester every Sunday. Most of the musicians were in their 40’s or older, and just about all of them had immigrated from various parts of Ireland. The regional style differences were quite noticeable, and there had to be some give and take so they could all play together. Out of that a new kind of style evolved. Added to that was the coaching of my own mentor, Jerry O’Brien, and my exposure to the recordings of the likes of John J. Kimmel, and P. J. Scanlon.

In the last decade since Wolf Trap there have been so many highlights: the Aonach Paddy O’Brien, the Galway Arts Festival, the White House, the tours across Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Luxembourg and Holland, the TV documentaries and interviews, etc. The culmination of those highlights was, of course, my National Heritage Fellowship award in 2004. The best things to have happened were meeting and playing with so many great musicians, some of them my heroes. I am thankful and touched that so many of them made a point of welcoming me back.

PAUL: Joe, that’s such a fascinating story. Thanks for filling in all those interesting details. But I'd like to hear more about the musical side: your approach to the button box, the actual instrument you play and why your sound is so unique and innovative.

JOE: You know, I got to the point where I resented this pervasive attitude that the accordion is a clunky, old fashioned, uncool kind of instrument that’s not worth listening to. The real truth is that the button accordion, in terms of traditional

Irish music and the history of fiddles, pipes and harps, is pretty much the new kid on the block—and capable of much more than is generally credited. In the ’40s there was a kind of resentment of the accordion from some Irish musicians, but this was mostly due to the fact that accordions in those days were built more for sheer power than tone. And because of the poor quality of sound systems of the time, this almost automatically made the accordion the lead player, particularly in the Irish ballrooms.

Back then, PA systems and microphones were atrocious by present standards, and usually consisted of one microphone placed in front of the whole band, and a couple of small inefficient speakers to fill large ballrooms. You could hear the accordion cutting through all the other instruments. I have seen button boxes with 6 sets of reeds. In fact, I have an old instrument here at home that has 5 sets of reeds. It’s powerful. You can hear it from quite a distance. They really made them strong and loud back then. Now, makers and players alike are much more conscious of response and tone quality.

I’ve always favored the D/C# accordion which was the only format available to us in Boston in the ’40s and early ’50s. Today, that format is somewhat akin to hen’s teeth: very rare. I am one of the very few that still plays this system. It suits me as an individual, and allows me to play the tunes the way I like to play them. I did try a B/C accordion and a C#/D, but for me there was no advantage.

For some years I have been playing a Bertrand Gaillard model, just 3 voices. But I prefer working just 2 of the voices generally, 1 set of lows and 1 set of dry middles. I love that combination.

In 1994, I was invited to go to Montmagny, Quebec, Canada for the accordion weekend up there, The Crossroads Of The Accordion World, a great festival. They bring accordion players from all over the world, every kind of format. I was on a break between the two performances I was scheduled to do. So I went for a walk along a beautiful river there on the festival grounds. There were several vendor stalls there, one of which was being used by Bertrand Gaillard (France) to exhibit his instruments. I knew of these instruments by reputation, but had never played one. There was a button accordion sitting on the table, and while Bertrand was talking to a customer, I kind of motioned whether it would it be alright for me to play. He nodded yes. I didn’t have that accordion in my hands for more than 10 or 15 seconds, and I was sold on it immediately. It was just so responsive. I had never played anything quite that good. After the customer left he came over, and I was playing bits of tunes. It was a B/C tuning, so I had to play it as if it were a melodeon. Of course, the pitch was wrong. But I was able to determine then and there that I wanted one. I asked him if he could build me a D/C# version. He said yes he could, but that nobody played that format any more, to which I replied that I did. His English was excellent, and I took his card and a brochure, which I poured over for about a week. I knew that the mechanisms would be the same regardless of the keys chosen. As a practical matter all that would be required would be to place the proper reeds in the proper places and I would have a D/C# box. I had him send me detailed charts of the different boxes he makes. A bunch of telephone calls and correspondence followed.

His standard bass side is an 8 bass configuration, with a 12 bass design as an option. I chewed on that for a while and decided on the 12 bass system, the voicings for which were my own design. I had him set up the reeds so that each bass would give one tone(s) whether the bellows was pushed or pulled. With only one tone, the 8 bass setup was too limited.

After a couple of years, Jackie Martin, my lifelong friend, wanted a box just like mine. I decided that I would order a new one so I could get 2 additional basses, an F# and C#, added, for a total of 14 basses, and a slightly modified swing tuning on the treble side. Jackie would buy my older one when the new one arrived.

I had a 1-year wait for the new box. Bertrand was able to come up with a special linkage to allow the 14 bass system to be put into the same space as the 12 bass. That was ideal—to get what you wanted and still keep the box compact. 

On many boxes, a coupler can be added to remove the thirds from chord voicings. My first Gaillard had that feature, but I found that I always used the coupler so that I had access to the major and minor voices of the same chords in every tune. While the coupler worked well, it still meant you had reeds you were not using. So, I hit on the idea of removing the middle third altogether for each of the basses. This eliminates the coupler and the unused reeds. Then, having them set up in my own configuration, I had access to the major and minor options for all the basses I had. All of a sudden you get so much more color, and the basses are much more useable—not perfect, but far ahead of anything I ever played.

I’ve drawn a lot of interest in this system because it opens up the harmonic possibilities of the box. At workshops, players would ask, “How did you do that? How do you get that sound”? I’m always happy to explain how my system works. And, I have written some tunes that explore this expanded potential of the box in new ways.

For me, these days, it’s all about enhancing the musical stature of the box, and continuing to explore its harmonic capabilities. That’s one of the main reasons why the Fellowship Award from the National Heritage Foundation means so much to me. It’s a wondrous thing after all these years to have the button box itself recognized in that way.


Ireland's Harvest (#09232) The Boston Edge (#10332) The Man Behind The Box (#10732)


(click to enlarge)