Joe Derrane dies at 86; Dance hall legend, master accordionist

Joe Derrane relaxing at his home in Randolph in 2010. 	Sean Smith photoJoe Derrane relaxing at his home in Randolph in 2010. Sean Smith photo

By Sean Smith, Special to BIR

Accordionist Joe Derrane, a beloved figure from the golden age of Boston’s Irish dance halls whose musical career experienced a revival during the 1990s, died on July 22 at the age of 86.

Derrane’s improbable “rediscovery” while in his 60s earned him a National Heritage Fellowship in 2004 from the National Endowment for the Arts, and brought his music to a new generation of admirers.

Born of Irish immigrant parents – both musicians themselves – Derrane started playing button accordion at age 10, and was a senior at Roxbury Mission High School when he began recording a series of 78 RPM records that would become legendary in Irish-American music. These 78s showcased Derrane’s distinctive style, marked by a masterful combination of ornamentation and rhythm as well as skillful chord progressions and substitutions.

By then, Derrane was a mainstay in Boston’s storied Irish dance halls – notably those in Roxbury’s Dudley Street neighborhood – that were an integral part of the Irish-American community for decades. As an adult, Derrane would play a regular assortment of gigs, whether in Boston or even farther afield, all the while working for what is now the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

But as the dance hall era came to an end in the 1960s, Derrane – by now with a family of his own – found he had to adapt to the new musical landscape: Reluctantly, he traded in his button accordion for a piano accordion (he later switched to keyboards), and turned to other styles and genres of music. The recordings he’d made earlier still cropped up from time to time, on radio shows or in private collections, but most listeners assumed Derrane was too infirm to play, or that he’d died. By 1990, he had essentially retired from music.

By that time, however, the Irish traditional music revival was in full swing, and when Rego Records reissued Derrane’s recordings in album form in 1993, he found himself back in the spotlight. In 1994, he was invited to play at the prestigious Wolf Trap Festival in Virginia, where a crowd of more than 1,200 greeted him enthusiastically, and then he was asked by the Green Linnet label to make a new recording.

Derrane went on to record six other solo and collaborative CDs over the next 16 years. He worked with many of the leading Irish musicians who had emerged in his absence, among them Seamus Connolly, Kevin Crawford, Seamus Egan, John McGann, Frankie Gavin and – as part of their Symphony Hall concert – The Chieftains. He was the subject of two documentaries, “As Played By Joe Derrane” and a segment for a series broadcast by the TG4 TV channel. In 1998, he was inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann North American Province Hall of Fame for his contributions to Irish music.

Derrane was one of many sources to whom local writer and musician Susan Gedutis Lindsay turned in writing her book about Boston’s Irish dance halls, “See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance,” but he was arguably the most important.

“Joe spoke of those days with such color and enthusiasm that it inspired me to write “See You at the Hall,” and it was Joe’s contributions that helped to shape that story,” said Lindsay, a former writer for the Boston Irish Reporter, a few days after Derrane’s death. “In some ways, I feel like I was just the scribe and it was Joe’s book. He had the wisdom to recognize the significance of that era, and the generosity to spend time with me to share the stories that became the architecture of that book. Monster talent, laser-sharp focus and drive, but also extreme humility – he can be an inspiration to us all. His comeback proved, too, that it’s never too late.”

In a 2010 column for The Irish Echo, the journalist Earle Hitchner – who is credited with aiding Derrane’s return – called it “the greatest comeback in the history of Irish traditional music.” The albums Derrane recorded, he said, “bear no whiff of a musician in retirement. If anything, they represent a period of monumental rejuvenation and have reacquainted the world with genius.”

But in the midst of this rebirth, Derrane was not content to simply rest on his achievements or his old repertoire. He composed many of his own tunes while drawing on some of the influences from his other, non-Irish music endeavors. One example was “Tango Derrane,” which he recorded on his final album, “Grove Lane,” released in 2010.

“What I’ve been trying to do is to elevate the status of the accordion,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Boston Irish Reporter. “It’s capable of a lot more than some might think — even the trad-heads. I’m a great believer in stretching yourself beyond the limits of the instrument. So I think I’ve learned more since I started back up again in 1994 than in all the previous years.”

“He’s just a stellar musician, with an impeccable groove and sense of timing,” John McGann, Derrane’s accompanist on “Grove Lane,” told the Reporter in 2010. “But there’s something else about Joe: One of the most difficult things for a traditional musician to do is stay true to the tradition but also to find your own voice. He’s injected a lot into the music but without changing its essence.” (McGann, who along with Derrane and Connolly formed the trio The Boston Edge, died in 2012.)

However prominent the role of music in his life, Derrane was first and foremost sustained by family, especially his wife, Anne, a Longford native he’d first met while at a gig in New York City: “I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, and there she was,” he recalled, “and she said, ‘It’s “Ladies Choice” time.’ I was smitten right then and there.” They were married in 1955.

Derrane credited Anne for her unflagging support of his music, even in their early years together when, he said, “it was not unusual for me to play a ballroom gig on a Thursday, a wedding on Friday night, two weddings on Saturday, a ballroom gig on Sunday — and then I’d get up Monday and go to work. She never complained.

“She was always there for me, she was the one who kept encouraging me to practice and play, she told me I could do it, even when I wasn’t sure I could.”

Anne died in 2008. Among the tracks Derrane recorded for “Grove Lane” – named for the street in Randolph where the Derranes lived together for 51 years – was a tune he’d composed, “Waltzing with Anne.”

“Everything was always here in Grove Lane for me, and for Anne, so I’m glad to be able to give it this connection to my music,” he said at the end of the 2010 interview.