Joe Burke - 1939-2021

Thu, 04/01/2021 - 11:58
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“a kind of musical north star.”

Legendary Irish accordion player, Joe Burke, died on 20 February 2021 at the age of 81.  Joe, who was without doubt one of the most influential musicians of his generation, was also one of the most loved, and tributes to the man and his music have flowed since his passing.

Joe is widely regarded as the man who started a huge revival of interest in the accordion; he was, and continues to be, an icon of traditional music, who has inspired many thousands people, and notably the younger generation.  Over the years he performed solo at the Carnegie Hall in New York, The Royal Albert Hall in London, and at all the major traditional music festivals at home and abroad.

Born in Kilnadeema, near Loughrea in East Galway, Joe grew up surrounded by music.  He began playing the accordion at the age of four and it wasn’t long before he was making a name for himself.  He won the All-Ireland senior accordion title at the Fleadh in Thurles in 1959, and again the following year in Boyle.  He later also won the duet title in 1962 in Gorey, along with fiddler, Aggie Whyte.

As the years passed, so the honours kept coming: Joe was awarded RTÉ’s Traditional Musician of the Year in 1970, the AIB Traditional Musician of the Year in 1997, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish World, also in 1997, an award for Musical Mastery from Boston College in 2000, and the Gradam an Comhaltais in 2003.

Joe lived in America for a time in the 1960s, playing with many of the greats there, including Paddy Killoran and Lad O’Beirne.  He was vastly knowledgeable about Irish music made in the first half of the 20th century in America, and has passed on a large repository of information and recordings from his personal collection to NUI Galway.  He made the first of his many recordings in 1966, A Tribute To Michael Coleman, with Andy McGann on fiddle and Felix Dolan on piano.  This was followed by other collaborations and solo albums, amongst which was a duet album with fiddler Seán McGuire, with whom Joe performed in Ireland and Scotland, and several albums with Charlie Lennon on piano.  All these albums are now deemed classic recordings, and invaluable sources of inspiration for future generations.

Joe returned to live in America in 1988, and remained there until he came back to Kilnadeema in 1992, where he continued to play and teach until recently.

For all the accolades and prestige, and the high musical regard in which he was held, the most striking thing about Joe was his way with people: with the musicians he taught and influenced; with the audiences he played to; and with the people he met along the way.  He inspired people, he encouraged them, he taught them, not just about the tunes but about the world in which the tunes existed, and he made them laugh.  Musician Seamie O’Dowd called him “a kind of musical north star.”

Another musician, fiddler Matt McGranaghan, demonstrated further the devotion that people felt towards Joe.  He said: “As a child, meeting Joe Burke was like meeting God.  When Joe and Anne came to town it was an occasion.  An occasion that attracted every musician, budding musician and trad aficionado within a 60-mile radius. They came to hear the Bucks, to see the bellows being stretched to their limit, to remind Joe about the first and second and third time they saw him at a fair or festival or Fleadh, but mostly they came to marvel and be in the presence of a genuine living legend.”

Joe and his wife and musical partner, Anne Conroy Burke, were regular visitors to festivals and fleadhs throughout the country.  Anne’s guitar accompaniment was the perfect backing for Joe’s music – music she understood perfectly because she is also an excellent accordion player.  The photo here shows them both at Cavan Fleadh in 2011, having just emerged from a coffee shop, no doubt laughing at one of Joe’s witty comments.  Joe is well-known for his sense of humour and very quick wit, and often entertained with some rather tall tales.  Everyone wanted to be in his company.

Colm Keating, the photographer who captured that moment with Joe and Anne told us: “I remember once hearing him talking to a fan who was pestering him about bringing out a new LP. The fan said to Joe, ‘What’s keeping ya from making a new LP?’ Joe replied, ‘Ah sure, it's a difficult thing to do ya know, and very time consuming.’ Me man was having none of it and says, ‘And what’s so difficult about it?’ And says Joe, as quick as a flash, ‘Well it’s very hard to get the hole exactly in the middle!’” 

Generous to the end, in recent months Joe worked with the Irish Traditional Music Archive to digitise and share some of his private and previously unreleased recordings of Michael Coleman, and make them available to the public.  Speaking on the RTÉ Radio 1 programme, The Rolling Wave, on 14 February, just a few short days before he died, he said: “I have treasured these recordings all these years.  The release of these highly rare recordings is a dream come true for me and I am very happy to be a part of it.”  What a fitting way for a man who has generously shared his music for over 50 years to end his time with us.  He will be badly missed.