Gradam an Chomhaltais for Joe Burke

By Séamus Mac Mathúna

When the biography of Joe Burke comes to be written, the source notes will surely refer to the presentation given at Tionól Leo Rowsome by Charlie Lennon and Séamus Mac Mathúna when Joe received Gradam an Chomhaltais 2003 on the 11th September. The essence of the man that Joe Burke is came across very clearly in the numerous stories and anecdotes recounted by Séamus and Charlie. The passion for Traditional music, understanding of people and perhaps most of all his wonderful sense of humour was illustrated again and again by two men who obviously knew their subject very well and held him in high esteem. The numbers who attended over the wekend also paid tribute to the general feeling that Joe Burke is just that wee bit special.

The musical tributes were led off by Kevin Rowsome and Lorraine Hickey and were immediately followed by singer Larry Mason, Kathleen Nesbitt, Paddy Ryan, Siobhán Ní Chonaráin, Maebh Ní Lochlann, Michael Tubridy, Mattie Jo Shéamuis, Séamus Mac Mathúna, James Mahon, and Janine Redmond all took their turn in performing for the great man. The Kilnadeema session group, all from oe’s own branch of Comhaltas, put on a complete show within a show, and the proudest man in the audience was certainly Mr Burke.

When a stage is graced by John Regan, Bobby Gardiner, Jimmy McGreevy and Séamus Begley, you know that an accordion feast is being prepared and the audience was not disappointed. The virtuoso playing of the first three was superbly rounded off by the unique voice of Séamus in his own personal tribute to Joe.

The highlight of the night was without doubt, Joe and Anne Burke. They gave a magnificent perfomance in every sense of the word, not just in playing but in chat, humour, stories and an engagement with the audience that every few performers in any genre possess. it was a performance that everyone will remember for a very long time.

Normal custom saw the Piper’s Club play the finale with musicians young and not so young, and as Joe said afterwards, the evening captured ompletely the essence of what Traditional music is all about.

Born in Kilnadeema, Galway on April 11th 1939 Joe Burke was raised in a househjold where Irish music was heard continually. His father, Mke, enjoyed and encouraged it and his mother Annie, (nee Keane) played the accordion as did his Uncle pat. ‘I first took up an old Hohner G/G# two-row,’ said Joe, ‘and my uncle showed me a couple of tunes on it. I sort of took off from there. I suppose I was four years old at the time. I had an advantage because I was listening to music the whole time, and there was set dancing in our house every Saturday night.’

Joe learned much of his early music not from fellow box players but from fiddlers, pipers, and flute players in and around Galway. Not surprisingly Joe is adept on the fiddle, pipes and wooden flute and he’s an accomplished tin whistle player as well.

But the button accordionists who transformed Joe’s style of playing were Tipperary’s Paddy O’Brien and fellow Galway men Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley. ‘I think the reason why paddy and Kevin and Joe had such an influence on me was that they were the first accordionists I ever heard play like the fiddlers,’ said Burke. ‘They could play the fiddle tunes with a lot of the same technique and ornamentation that a fiddler would use. That was what attracted me to them.’

Besides the box playing of O’Brien, Keegan and Cooley, Joe Burke listened closely and steadfastly to the 78-rpm recordings of Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman. The latter’s choice of tunes and the approach he took to them had a deep effect on Joe’s evolving repertoire, which would quickly grow to impressive proportions.

By the time he turned 15, Joe had a B/C button accordion, on which he progressed in technique at an amazing rate. At the 1959 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Thurles, and again at the 1960 Fleadh in Boyle, he won the Senior All Ireland button accordion title. Also at the ‘59 Fleadh, Joe led the Leitrim Céili Band to the All-Ireland senior band championship.

“That was the first band I played in”, said Joe. “Leitrim is the next parish to Kilnadeema in Galway. Paddy Downey and I started the Leitrim together. We had some marvellous musicians in that céili band - Paddy Carty was one of them - and we put out a record of the band on Dublin records in 1959-1960. The second year that Leitrim won the All-Ireland, in 1962 in Gorey, both Séamus Connelly and Aggie White (a fiddle player who had played with the Ballinakill Céili Band) were in the band. Also around 1959 Joe made his first solo recordings, two 78’s for Gael-Linn. ‘They were the last two 78’s ever recorded and released in Ireland’, he said, laughing.

In 1962, Joe departed the Leitrim Céili Band and Ireland for America, where he lived until 1965. Joe has fond memories of those three years in the States, especially New York City. ‘I used to look forward to playing with Andy McGann at the Ceili and also meeting and having sessions with Catherine Brennan Grant and Larry Redican and Paddy Killoran and Jack Coen in houses and other places. I also went up to the Catskills and to cities like Chicago and Boston to play.

By the time ‘A Tribute to Michael Coleman’ came out in 1966, Joe Burke was back home in ireland. There, he formed a musical partnership with Belfast fiddling virtuoso Sean Maguire and pianist Josephine Keegan. The three made an album together in 1971, ‘Two Champions’, for Belfast’s Outlet Records. ‘It was the quickest album ever done’, said Joe with a chuckle, ‘a record for a record. It was done in an hour and a half, all fourteen tracks. It happened that way because we were in a big hurry.’

’Séan and I got up in the morning, knowing the studio was booked for one o’clock, and we sat down and thought of the tunes that we played together - without ever having the instrument there to play them.’

We were eating breakfast while Josephine wrote out the tune titles, then we put them together. Just like that. We were a couple of hours late in getting to the studio, and we were scheduled that night to play in a pub on the Falls Road. So we sat down in the studio and played the tunes on the list once through - no retakes, no dubs- and we never heard one of them back. We did it straight onto tape, put the instruments in our cases, and off we went. You know Séan and I did another album together, but the tape got lost.’

The foregoing is part of an article written by Earle Hitchner, circa 1994, and included in the sleeve notes for the release on CD of ‘A Tribute to Michael Coleman’ (by Joe Burke, Andy McGann and Felix Dolan). Earle’s writing on Irish traditional music and associated matters in the Wall Street Journal, The Irish Echo and other publications have established his reputation as one of the most authoritative commentators on Irish music on the International scene.

Ben Lennon on Joe Burke

Ben Lennon wrote an introduction to Joe’CD ‘The morning Mist’ and it is such a beautiful piece of writing that we had to give it here in full. Suffice to say that Ben writes with the kind of feeling that he puts into his fiddle playing.

— Séamus Mac Mathuna

I first met Joe with my brother Charlie sometime in the early 60’s in the house of Séamus Connelly in Killaloe, Co Clare. Aggie White was there, so was Fr Kelly and a great night’s music ensued. It was the beginning of a long and lasting friendship down through the years to this present day.

I am therefore privileged to have been asked to pen this introduction to a beautiful album from the gifted hands of a truly great master of the accordion.

Joe is a man of rare stature and his very presence graces and transforms a place as soon as he enters. One suddenly becomes aware of a magic descending and permeating through, to the extent that one feels the need to remain in his company and stay under the spell. I know few musicians who possess this rare and unique gift. When one adds his storytelling to his musicality, then the picture is complete.

I have studied his playing over the years, so as to gain an understanding of why things work so well. I can only conclude that the secret lies partly by the way he weaves the bellows, creating a series of notes, sometimes giving a rocking effect all with superb measured time. Add to this a right hand that spans longer than long, embracing rolls, doubles, trebles, all kind of grace notes, of the most delicate texture and other quiffs known only to the man himself. The result is a masterful rendition of traditional music at its very best.

This album has a lovely warm mellow feel to it, coursing along in the comfort zone at a nice leisurely pace taking in a wide variety of music, including the odd waltz, at least four airs, of which the ‘Lament for Aughrim’ is an absolute gem, a strathspey and of course reels, jigs and hornpipes.

Listen to the lonesome sounds of the box. It haunts you all the way through. Joe is accompanied by Charlie whose delicacy and taste are now well established and the fusion of these two, which began that night in Killaloe, all of those 40 years ago, is heard at its best in this album.

I can honestly give my imprimatur to it and recommend it to all lovers fo traditional music in this rarefied strastospheric layer of excellence.

Space does not permit me to expound further. Suffice it to say that spring wells keep pumping however dry the weather and the fountain of kilnadeema is far from being dry.

The best of luck Joe.