While a senior at Roxbury Mission High School in Massachusetts, Joe Derrane recorded the first of what eventually became sixteen 78-rpm records that changed the course of Irish-American accordion music. These recordings, made in the late 1940s, featured Derrane on the button accordion performing with a combination of ornamentation, rhythm, power, and polish that became legendary in the Irish-American community, as well as abroad. Joe went on to play piano accordion in ballroom dance bands eventually performing a more eclectic repertoire.
Due to a long absence from playing the button accordion, most aficionados of Irish music assumed that he had passed away or was too old to play, especially considering the skill and maturity exhibited on those 1940s recordings. In 1994, however, Derrane made a triumphant return to performing the button accordion at the Irish Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia. At that event his children, now in their thirties, heard him play button accordion for the first time. Master accordionist Billy McComiskey said of the performance, "It's really great just to see him. I didn't realize he was still alive. I knew he was really, really good, but I didn't know he was that good." Since then, Derrane has toured internationally, made numerous recordings, and was named the "Best Male Musician of the Decade (1990-2000)" by the Irish American News. Even with these accolades, he makes an extra effort to teach young accordion students and to conduct instructional workshops in all parts of the country.
NEA: I wanted to start out by congratulating you on your award. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
MR. DERRANE: I was absolutely stunned, to put it mildly. I had been out playing the night before and was late getting in. It was just after 9:00 in the morning and I was sitting here with my wife in the kitchen trying to get my eyes open with the first cup of coffee, not really with the world yet, and the phone rang. "Is this Joe Derrane?" someone said. "Yes, it is." "Is this Joe Derrane, the accordion player?" "Yes, it is." I came to realize afterwards that they wanted to verify that they were talking to the right person.
Then Barry [Bergey] told me who he was and that he was calling from the National Endowment for the Arts and I'm saying, "Yeah, yeah." You know, a year ago around the same time of year I did a performance with John McGann at the Library of Congress, so I just assumed that this might be a call about doing something again. I wasn’t really quite awake, you know,. And then he says, "Well, I'm delighted to tell you that you are one of the ten awardees this year for the National Heritage award."
You know, some musicians have a strange sense of humor and they’ll call you at 9:00 o'clock in the morning or 2:00 o'clock in the morning to tell you something and then hang up the phone and leave you wondering. I'm glad I didn't say anything because my first reaction was that somebody was playing a joke on me. But I just kind of rolled with it and when he told me I said, "Are you sure?" And I started to shake. My wife was there watching me and she said, "What's the matter?" So I just motioned to her that it was all right and I kept talking to him.
When the conversation was over I just had to go and sit down. I was trembling and I said, "My god, you know, an honor like that coming to me. I'm just a box player." I was thrilled and scared and humbled and proud.
NEA: Why do you think you were so attracted to learning this instrument?
MR. DERRANE: I don't know if I can tell you why I got interested. All I can tell you is what my Mom and Dad told me. When I was around five or six there was an Irish radio program on every Sunday in the Boston area and there’d often be an accordion solo by a guy named Jerry O'Brien. The program would be on and and I’d be paying no attention until the moment that accordion started to play. Then I’d come running and stand in front of the radio and be jumping up and down, really into it. As soon as the accordion stopped playing I’d lose complete interest in the music and the program. Apparently the accordion just had this fascination for me.
When I was ten, after driving my parents pretty much to distraction because I wanted to learn to play the accordion and play this music, they finally found a little used accordion for me. They then contacted Jerry O'Brien through the radio station and arranged for him to come to the house to give me lessons. That would be about 1940. I studied with Jerry for about three-and-a-half to four years.
NEA: What special skills did you need to develop to become a good accordion player?
MR. DERRANE: Jerry was extremely patient with me right from the start. He had the patience of a stone you might say. But he was also very, very particular. When he would teach you a tune, a jig or a reel or a horn pipe, it was all done in the tablature system. The old accordion had only ten buttons on it -- in the tablature each one was numbered one through ten and if the number had a dunce cap over it then you played pressing the bellows in, if it had a dash over it you played it pulling the bellows out. Everything had to be very, very clean. He'd say, "Well, all right, you have the notes but they are too smooth, too connected. You have to hit one note then let it go before you hit the next one." Everything had to be very precise.
He worked hard with me. And no matter how well I did it or how hard I tried he felt that I could always do it a little better. He was a wonderful guy. We developed a very close relationship. He was almost like a second father. During summer vacations I used to spend a lot of time out at his house growing up with his own kids. It was quite a relationship.
NEA: Can you talk also about sustaining a career as an accordion player and the challenges and difficulties you’ve faced?
MR. DERRANE: Most importantly, the music itself is a joy. There's a saying that music has its own rewards and I think that's true. I could come home from work or be frustrated or worried about something and I'd sit down and just start to play and within 10 or 15 minutes the music would take over and all those the worries and concerns would fade into the background. At least for a while.
As far as sustaining a career -- I always had a day job, even when I was very busy playing. I'd be playing at night or playing weekends, but I always had a day job. When I was growing up you could never really depend on the music to make a living. When I got married and started a family, I had to be able to make a living. The music was always done as an adjunct, if you will, to a full-time day job.
I was actually about 16 before I found out you could get paid for playing. I was just playing for the sheer love of it and then all of a sudden I was asked to play here and there and getting paid. I thought that was pretty neat. I didn't set out to establish a career in music. It just seemed to come of its own accord.
NEA: Has the response to your music changed or stayed pretty constant?
MR. DERRANE: It has changed. I think my approach has changed as well. I did many years of strictly Irish work but then we went through a period in Boston when the Irish music scene just fell apart. There had been a huge ballroom scene there -- on one street we had five Irish dance halls going every Saturday night within a five or six minute walk. That went on for years, but then things changed. A lot of things came into it. There was a big change in demographics in that area, with a new wave of immigration coming from Ireland and changing tastes in music. Other, more commercial, ballrooms opened up. By 1960, the whole ballroom scene had died. There was no place left for us to play the music we loved so much.
But I have to play music, it's like food and drink, it's like breathing. I just have to play. I had to make a decision, so I sold my accordion to raise some money to buy a piano accordion. I then went at the piano accordion hammer and tongs. When I go out after something, it's really quite intense, a nonstop thing. I started doing some commercial work around Boston with the pop bands and whatever came along. I did a lot of Jewish and Italian and Polish music, and then show tunes, big band stuff, and swing tunes, supper clubs and lounge work. I did all of these different things for years.
In 1986 I had formed a little top-40 group with my son, Joe, Jr. and everything was going fine. Then a very smart supper club down here booked us to do a year in their lounge. They also had weddings nearly every weekend which we would get to play as well. This was such a great opportunity that we farmed out all the other work we had booked so we could take this job. The night before we were to start we got a telephone call and were told, "Don't come in. The place has been sold."
NEA: Oh, my.
MR. DERRANE: It was sold to a restaurant chain which promptly closed the building. They weren’t going to have any functions -- no weddings, nothing like that. No lounge, no entertainment, strictly a restaurant. So there we were with no work. Then we couldn't keep the band together. I finally said, "Look, this is it. This is the end of the road for me." We sold off all the equipment and I just retired from the music business.
Now comes 1993. Between 1947 and 1951 I made eight recordings of Irish accordion music, old 78s, the medium at that time. Unbeknownst to me they had become part of the canon and lore of Irish music, especially over in Ireland and in places where people were really still into the music. In 1993, Regal Records in New York bought the rights to those recordings and took the 16 sides from the 78s and made a CD. They did some electronic cleaning up to enhance the quality a little bit and republished it, and this whole thing caught on.
They sent a copy of the CD to Earl Hitchner, a journalist for the Irish Echo newspaper in New York. He really liked it and called Regal Records and asked, "How did this happen? I never heard of this guy. When did he die?" This type of thing. And they laughed and they said, "He's not dead. He's very well and very much alive and living in Randolph." They gave him my phone number. And he did a big interview.
At this point I had quit playing music altogether. He called up and said, "Where are you playing?" "I'm not playing.” I said, “I quit playing all together." "Well, do you still have your button accordion?" he asked. And I said, "Oh, god, no. I sold that way back around 1960. I haven't had a button accordion and haven't played any real traditional music, not to any great extent, for all those years." "Well,” he said, “you're going to take it up again. You're going to play again." And I said, "No, I don't think so. I'm 62 years of age now. I don't think I could ever play at that level again." But he kept insisting that if I really wanted to I could. Remember, this is a man I knew by name only. But he really seemed to have a conviction that I could do this again. We had a three-hour conversation. At the end I finally said, "Well, gee, you know, maybe I could try this."
Right around that time a friend of mine, Jack Martin, came into possession of a second accordion, which he inherited from his father who had just died. He already had one of his own. Jack and I have been very, very close friends for years and years, and he was always asking me to go back playing. I kept telling him, "Jack, I don't have an instrument, and for me to go out and make that kind of investment when I don't even know if I could ever do it again just doesn't make sense." He cleaned up his own instrument, got it all polished up and appeared on my doorstep and said, "Here. Now you have a box. Take this and start playing again. You have no more excuses." So I started again, but kind of half-heartedly.
NEA: What was it like going back to it again? Was it hard?
MR. DERRANE: For the first few weeks I would play five minutes here and there and I didn’t think I’d be able to do it again. But then I got a call from someone at the Wolf Trap Festival. He said that the CD had created quite a stir and wanted me to come down to play Memorial Day weekend at the Irish Festival. And I said, " I haven't played the box for 35 years, you know." And he said, "Well, even if you don't want to play we’d still like you to come. There's so much interest, we'll fly you down and give you a fee and set you up in a nice little spot where you can tell people about where you've been and what you've been doing." And I said, "Oh, god, I'm not good at public speaking or anything like that. I've never done it." He said, "Well, what would you rather do? Play or talk?" I said, "Well, if I have my druthers I suppose I'd rather play." Right then he just jumped in and said, "That's it. You're on. Somebody will call you within ten days or so." And hung up the phone. And then I realized that all I had was this man's name. I didn’t even have a telephone number. It dawned on me this must have been kind of a subconscious something or other. I don't know. So I said to myself, "Well, maybe I can."
I really started to practice and get into it. I figured I had to have an hour of material and that this would be it, my last concert, and a great way to put a cap on my career. Much better than having had to quit, which I was never really happy with. I identified enough material to last an hour and set about practicing. But the first four or five weeks was sheer agony. I started out at six to seven hours a day right off the bat, seven days a week. This was in October '93 and the concert was Memorial Day weekend. I’d play for 20 minutes, half an hour, then out would come the ice packs -- I was using muscles I hadn’t used in a long time --- and then play again for half an hour. Then I'd fill the sink with hot water and put my whole forearm in. After about three weeks there was a big change, things were coming back. After five or six weeks it was fine. Then I was able to play as long as I gave myself.
I worked on that material, but the funny thing is that I saw this concert as just one more for old time's sake. My children and my wife were all excited for me, and this Earl Hitchner seemed to have unshakable faith in me. I don't know what he thinks he heard in me. He told me that whenever we started talking about Irish music and the button box a change came into my voice. He could hear the change in my voice, the excitement, and he felt the fire. I think the way he put it was "The fire was there and it's right deep in the belly, Joe. It's still burning. I can hear it in your voice." I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn't sense any change but he said it was very obvious.
In any event, this guy had this faith in me. And my wife and my children were so excited about this and I worked really hard. They hooked me up with a very fine pianist, Felix Dolan out of New York. I had heard some of his work. You know, all the years I wasn't playing I was still listening to recordings and stuff so I was kind of keeping pace with who was who and who was doing what and what the music was all about.
NEA: Well, what's your favorite thing to play on the button box or your favorite thing to do on it?
MR. DERRANE: I can’t say I have a favorite. That's the thing. There are different tempos, different types of dance tunes. There are jigs, reel, horn pipes, slip jigs and slow airs, and polkas. I suppose horn pipes are my favorite because they’re more open. They leave more room for ornamentation and putting something of yourself into the music. Most players prefer reels because they're faster, peppier. But there are lovely melody lines in the horn pipes and I play them all.
I've been writing a lot of tunes for the button accordion and exploring it in a way that I never did in the old days. It’s been a kind of an epiphany for me. Most people, even the people in the Irish traditional music, have a rather narrow view of the capabilities of the box. The fact is that these little button accordions, small though they may be, have great capabilities if you take the time and the effort to go in and explore them. That's what I'm all about these days -- playing the music and enhancing that profile.
NEA: What advice do you have for young box players?
MR. DERRANE: Now, you're very close to my heart here. As I was saying, I’ve been exploring the box in a way that I've never done before. And what I have found out is that the boxes have more capabilities than people would expect. This applies to a lot of the musicians as well. What I find is that there are many box players, some really wonderful box players, who tend to accept the status quo, if you will. I would urge the young box players to really learn your instrument. Learn its full potential. Don't be content with just learning and playing the tunes -- that's fine, it keeps the tradition going but it doesn't do anything much for them as individual players. If you really learn, really explore the box, in so doing you will explore your own potential, and it's amazing what can happen.