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Joe Derrane a National Treasure

Joe Derrane has come to be known as the man who mustered one of the more amazing comebacks in the history of Irish traditional music. He had been active in the Irish music scene around Boston until it began to recede in the 1950s, whereupon Derrane turned to the piano accordion and began performing other types of music. In 1994, after almost four decades away from the two-row button accordion, Joe Derrane was persuaded to return to the instrument for a special concert. He walked out onto the Wolf Trap stage, a repertoire of eight medleys in tow, and the years faded away. This important piece of myth-making aside, Derrane is a remarkable player. He makes the tunes float effortlessly out of the box, playing in a style that is tightly arranged, precise and delightfully ornamented, and with a vigor that belies his 68 years.

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.

To honor and preserve the United States' diverse cultural heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts annually awards up to ten one-time-only NEA National Heritage Fellowships to master folk and traditional artists. These fellowships recognize lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to the nation’s traditional arts heritage.
The following two articles about Joe Derrane come to us courtesy of Earle Hitchner, and were originally published on June 2, 2004, in the Irish Echo newspaper, New York City.
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Joe Derrane Wins National Heritage Fellowship
Boston-born Joe Derrane, whose return to the button accordion in 1994 is widely considered the greatest comeback in the history of Irish traditional music, has been chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellowship recipient for 2004. It is America's highest honor in folk and traditional arts.
The 74-year-old resident of Randolph, Mass., is the first Irish button accordionist, the first Irish musician from New England, and just the 10th Irish performer ever to receive this prestigious accolade.
Each National Heritage Fellowship carries a $20,000 award. Ceremonies will be held in Washington, D.C., during Sept. 30-Oct. 1 and will include a formal presentation on Capitol Hill, a lunchtime banquet at the Library of Congress, and a concert in Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.
Other National Heritage Fellows for 2004 are dobro player Jerry Douglas, blues singer Koko Taylor, gospel steel-guitar player Charles "Chuck" T. Campbell, North Indian Kathak dancer Anjani Ambegaokar, Skokomish carver and storyteller Gerald "Subiyay" Miller, tamburitza instrument maker Milan Opacich, straw appliqué artists Eliseo and Paula Rodriguez, Chinese rod puppeteers Yuqin Wang and Zhengli Xu, and Cambodian musician and teacher Chum Ngek.
Among the nearly 300 winners since the inception of the National Heritage Fellowships in 1982 are fiddler Kevin Burke (2002), multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney (1999), stepdancer and instructor Donny Golden (1995), fiddler Liz Carroll (1994), flutist Jack Coen (1991), stepdancer Michael Flatley (1988), fiddler and instructor Martin Mulvihill (1984), uilleann piper Joe Shannon (1983), and sean-nós singer Joe Heaney (1982).
Non-Irish winners include B. B. King (1991), Bill Monroe (1982), Doc Watson (1988), John Lee Hooker (1983), Earl Scruggs (1989), Clifton Chenier (1984), Pops Staples (1998), Ralph Stanley (1984), Tommy Jarrell (1982), and the Dixie Hummingbirds (2000).
"To be in such illustrious company makes this all the sweeter," Joe Derrane said by phone from the Randolph home he shares with his Longford-born wife, Anne. "When I got the news, I was stunned and had trouble taking it all in. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd get this kind of honor."
Son of an Aran Islands father and a Roscommon mother, Derrane is especially proud that his first love, Irish-style button accordion, has also been formally recognized. "I feel this award is a validation of the instrument," he said. "It's always been my intent to raise the profile of the accordion, in and out of Irish music. It's a fantastic instrument capable of far more than most people think. In the last five years, I've been exploring the box in a way that I had never done before."
During the 1940s and 1950s, Joe Derrane was unsurpassed in skill and reputation as an American button accordionist playing Irish music. His solo playing on 16 sides of 78-rpm recordings, begun when he was a 17-year-old senior at Roxbury's Mission High School, fueled his legendary status as a D/C# button box virtuoso. He later recorded with his Cork-born accordion teacher, Jerry O'Brien (1899-1968), and with the All-Star Céilí Band and the Irish All Stars, both featuring his younger brother George (1932-2003) on tenor banjo.
When the Irish dance-hall scene in Boston began to wane during the mid-1950s, Derrane switched to piano accordion and, around 1980, to keyboards, playing show tunes, jazz, pop, Jewish, and Italian music. His last group, Nightlife, featured his son Joey on bass guitar and vocals. They disbanded in 1990-1991, and for nearly four years afterward, Joe Derrane did not play music professionally.
Retired in 1989 from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, where he was employed for 27 years and finished as manager of workers' compensation, Derrane was doing part-time data entry for St. Timothy's Church in Norwood, Mass., when an invitation came to perform on button accordion at the Irish Folk Festival in Wolf Trap, Vienna, Va., on May 29, 1994.
He hadn't played a button box in public for more than three decades, and his son Joey and daughter Sheila, then in their thirties, had never seen him play the button accordion at all until that day in Wolf Trap. His stage performances electrified the crowd and led directly to a recording opportunity.
The Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of the Year in 1995, Joe Derrane has made six albums (including two to come from Mapleshade), played on the "American Masters of Celtic Music" U.S. tour organized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, given concerts in Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, England, and Canada, performed for the President of the United States and the prime minister of Ireland at the White House, taught accordion, and composed tunes since his Wolf Trap comeback in May 1994, and in May of this year he learned about his National Heritage Fellowship.
"What a 10-year anniversary," he said. "As a dear friend once told me back in 1994, 'Maybe God isn't through with you yet.' At Wolf Trap, I told the audience I would never quit playing. I intend to keep that promise."
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Trad and True: National Heritage Fellowships
Over the course of 22 years, the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowships have grown in stature and monetary award ($20,000). Like the NEA's National Medal of Arts and Jazz Masters Fellowships, the National Heritage Fellowships recognize a lifetime, not just a year, of outstanding cultural attainment. They've become, in effect, career capstones for folk and traditional musicians and other artists living in the United States who still actively apply their skill and talent at a very high level.
No better example could be found than this year's selection of Boston button accordion virtuoso Joe Derrane, whose music and impact span almost 60 years. Nearly 300 artists, including Derrane and nine other Irish and Irish-American performers, have won National Heritage Fellowships since 1982.
That was the year they were founded by Bess Lomax Hawes, sister of famed folk-song collector and scholar Alan Lomax. Hawes was director of the NEA's Folk & Traditional Arts Program back then, and she drew her inspiration for the fellowships from Japan's "Living National Treasures" system. That system recognizes and supports for life various Japanese "holders" of "important intangible cultural properties" in drama, music, dance, and other disciplines and crafts with "a high historical or artistic value."
A lifetime annuity is not what the NEA envisioned for its honorees, who receive a one-time stipend of $20,000 each and are feted in autumn in Washington, D.C. There is no application form for nominations, which come into the NEA mostly as unsolicited letters from all over the United States. Additional documentation is then requested (albums, videos, samples or photos of artwork, testimonials, etc.), and an advisory panel of experts and peers convened from across the country sifts through those materials to arrive at the final selections.
For 2004, a panel of 10 took four days to meticulously review and discuss the credentials of about 270 candidates. Out of that number, 10 National Heritage Fellowships were awarded to 12 recipients, who include two husband-and-wife teams.
Besides Derrane, winners for 2004 include Jerry Douglas, a/k/a "Flux," a nickname coined by bluegrass and newgrass aficionados for his unequaled mastery of the dobro (no disrespect intended toward the brilliant Josh Graves, who was Douglas's dobro idol), and Koko Taylor, often called the modern "Queen of the Blues" (the incomparable Bessie Smith tops her historically), whose signature song from 1965, "Wang Dang Doodle," still stirs listeners.
"The work of these awardees is a testament to the diversity and exceptional quality of America's artistic resources," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said of all the winners for 2004. "The cultures and artistic forms represented here speak to traditions both ancient and contemporary, and to artistic achievements that are timeless."
In 1995 for the Wall Street Journal, I interviewed Barry Bergey, then assistant director and now director of the NEA's Folk & Traditional Arts Program, about the process and criteria of selection.
"We had a nomination pool of 208 and 2,142 pages of support materials that the panel looked at [in 1995]," Bergey told me. "The first round of voting by the panel is based purely on artistic excellence, and usually they manage to get the number down to about 40 or 50 people. Of that number, we don't care if the panel selects, say, 25 fiddlers as long as those 25 fiddlers are among the strongest artists in that pool. After that, the panel takes a closer look at other factors, such as ongoing contributions to the field and also what gives a picture of the cultural diversity and breadth of the country."
Conventionally, 10-12 artists are honored each year, and nominations remain active for five years and are reviewed again annually during that period.
The list of National Heritage Fellowship winners from 1982 through 2004 is wide-ranging and impressive. Besides musicians and dancers, it includes weavers, woodcarvers, silversmiths, potters, embroiderers, sculptors, doll makers, and boat builders of stunning artistry. The list is a credit to both the Folk & Traditional Arts Program and the National Endowment for the Arts itself, an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress in 1965 to bring "the arts to all Americans" and to provide "leadership in arts education."
The NEA's 2004 budget is $120,971,000, which is quite a jump from its 1966 budget of $2,898,308. Support of "nonprofit arts" makes sense--and cents. It is estimated they contribute about $37 billion to the U.S. economy annually. I hope some of our politicians remember this the next time they feel the urge to demagogue on the suitability of public funding for the arts.

Five Irish button accordionists and an Irish fiddler, all of international repute, are among the many musicians who have praised the box playing of Joe Derrane since his historic comeback at Wolf Trap in May 1994.
Brooklyn-born Billy McComiskey, the 1986 All-Ireland senior button accordion champion who saw Derrane in action at Wolf Trap, said: "I knew he was really, really good, but I didn't know he was that good."
Athlone-born box player Paul Brock, a former member of Moving Cloud, described Derrane's return to the button accordion in one word: "Monumental."
Galway button accordionist Máirtín Ó Connor wrote a tune for Derrane, "Shop Street," and called him a "legend who has inspired many people, both as a human being and as a great musician."
Another Galway button accordionist, Joe Burke, said of Derrane's box playing: "His fingerwork is absolutely spectacular."
Jackie Daly, former De Dannan and current Patrick Street button accordionist who plays a C#/D box, said of Derrane: "He's a genius. That's all there is to it."
Clare-born fiddler Séamus Connolly, who's the Sullivan Artist in Residence in Irish Music at Boston College, has done several concerts with Derrane over the years and just finished recording a trio album with him and guitarist John McGann. Connolly said: "Joe's playing is just amazing. I consider it one of the highlights of my life to have recorded with him."
Last month, Derrane recorded that album with Connolly and McGann without a break after recording a solo album backed by McGann. Both will be issued by Mapleshade, an indie label in Upper Marlboro, Md., that released Derrane's previous CD, "Ireland's Harvest," with De Dannan fiddler Frankie Gavin and pianist Brian McGrath.
Is Derrane's outside influence still strong? Consider the first track on the excellent "Draoícht" CD newly issued by harper Michael Rooney and flutist June McCormack. It's "Joe Derrane's Jig," a tune the button accordionist didn't compose but recorded, and to which he's still linked.
[Both pieces published on June 2, 2004, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City.
Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
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The Mission of the NEA

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts -- both new and established -- bringing the arts to all Americans, and providing leadership in arts education.
They have been celebrating America's Folk and Traditional Arts for more than 27 years. The Folk Arts Program at the NEA began in 1977 and The National Heritage Fellows program started in 1982.  Barry Bergey is the NEA's Director of Folk and Traditional Arts.

Articles: Earle Hitchner, Iish Echo