JOE DERRANE / JOHN McGANN:
The Man Behind The Box
I love the warm, reedy sound of the traditional wood-case button accordion. To me, it's the most joyful sound in Irish (or Cajun) music. And when the legendary Joe Derrane is behind the box, I'm always torn: should I jump up to dance or just sit back with my jaw in my lap listening to his blazing speed and endless inventions? At 17, Joe cut six hit 78s that changed the Irish box forever. Six decades later on this CD, probably Joe's best-ever, he's still revolutionizing the tradition. I'm equally taken with John McGann's in-the-pocket accompaniment. His super-tight, super-original guitar (were those a couple of blues notes I heard??), not to mention his heart-wrenching mandolin airs, enhance the tradition. As for my part, I'll wager this CD sounds closer to live accordion than anything you've heard. (#10732)
Joe Derrane, Titan of the Two-Row
[Published on March 22, 2006, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]
Historically, a large part of Irish traditional music in America (and a significant part in Ireland itself) was shaped by the impact of such immigrant figures as Michael Coleman, James Morrison, P. J. Conlon, John McKenna, Patsy Touhey, Capt. Francis O'Neill, Ed Reavy, Paddy Killoran, Paddy O'Brien, Paddy Reynolds, Martin Wynne, James "Lad" O'Beirne, Louis Quinn, Terry "Cuz" Teahan, Joe Cooley, Paddy Cronin, and Kevin Keegan. They all lived for a time in America, and many of them spent virtually their entire adult lives here. The greatest Irish traditional player, composer, and collector during the last century were Coleman, Reavy, and O'Neill, all from Ireland, all longtime residents of the U.S. where they made their biggest mark.
Irish traditional figures of that enduring stature and influence who were born, raised, and remained in the United States are fewer. They include Johnny McGreevy, Eleanor Kane Neary, and Andy McGann, three who helped to dispel kneejerk assumptions about authenticity linked to Irishness of birthplace and about talented Yanks fated to fall short or in the shadow of Irish-born masters.
Boston-born button accordionist Joe Derrane certainly belongs in that list of Yanks who shook the trad tree to its roots. Subsequent generations of exceptional American players are obviously making their mark in the Irish tradition, and several of them will undoubtedly join the pantheon. But in the late 1940s, when he was still a teenager, Derrane cut a number of 78-rpm recordings on the D/C# box that established a new benchmark in virtuosity and compelled newfound admiration and respect from those same Irish-born masters. That achievement alone secures his place in the annals of America's finest Irish traditional musicians.
Derrane wasn't finished, however. After a four-decade public performance hiatus on the Irish two-row button accordion, he returned to it in spectacular fashion on May 29, 1994, at the 18th annual Irish Folk Festival in the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va. (The role played by festival director Michael Denney and Marleen Denney, a member of the festival entertainment committee, in giving Derrane this bolt-from-the-blue opportunity deserves more historical credit.)
Since then, the button accordionist who resides with his Longford-born wife, Anne, in Randolph, Mass., has released six CD's constituting more music than he recorded before the 1994 Wolf Trap comeback. In essence, he has burnished and monumentally extended his earlier reputation, and proved F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous truism wrong: "there are no second acts in American lives." This extraordinary, still flourishing second act of Derrane's musical life was one of the reasons why he earned America's highest accolade for folk and traditional arts, the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship, in 2004.
Made with fellow Massachusetts guitarist and mandolinist John McGann, Derrane's brand-new CD, "The Man Behind the Box," is another performance milestone. Now 76 years old, the button accordionist upends all notions of aging as he continues to expand his repertoire and refine his redoubtable technique, the influence of which is clearly showing up in more and more button box albums coming out of Ireland. Echoes of Derrane's trademark triplets frequently ripple through recordings made by younger accordionists, who have also responded positively to the exploratory and risk-taking side of his music.
When was the last time you heard an Irish traditional button accordionist playing rhythmic accompaniment for a mandolinist throughout two entire tracks? Derrane does that for McGann in the reels "McFadden's/Dr. Gilbert's/Spike Island Lasses/Dr. Taylor" and the hornpipes "The Hawk/The Tailor's Twist/The Men From Ulster." The venturesome, egalitarian spirit of Derrane, probably the most accomplished accordion player of Irish hornpipes in history, is apparent in that latter track.
Multi-talented McGann, who now teaches part-time at his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music, has become Derrane's go-to accompanist in recent years. He uses a mainly Irish rhythm palette dappled with bluegrass, old-timey, swing, and New Acoustic colors to create a unique, proportioned, roots-rich style that complements and challenges as much as it reassures and buttresses. Creative sparks between the two instrumentalists fly not from temperament but from touch, as they settle into a groove that never deteriorates into a rut.
In the past, McGann's approach to accompaniment has discomforted some trad diehards who prefer more predictable or so-called "invisible" backing. But "he knows what's Irish," Clare-born fiddler Seamus Connolly said in praising McGann, and even the most implacable purists cannot dispute his exceptional ability and percolating musical ideas. Michael Coleman, Paddy Reynolds, and Tommy Peoples, to cite just three, all suffered on occasion from plodding or tin-eared accompanists. Derrane doesn't. With McGann, he matches musical strengths, not circumvents musical weaknesses. And McGann provides another advantage: he is a superb soloist, as his wholly unaccompanied mandolin latticework on the slow air "Dark Island" demonstrates.
If John McGann shines brightly as the man behind the box player, then Joe Derrane shines even brighter as "the man behind the box." He is that rarest of Irish button accordionists, able to play Irish traditional music in a visceral, hard-core style while simultaneously injecting variations and ornamentation of meticulous dexterity that always serves the melodic integrity of a tune.
This paradox of exactitude and experimentation can be heard to exhilarating effect in his playing of such medleys as "The Fair Wind/Carthy's," "Road to Clonmel/Gan Ainm/Humors of Ederney," "Tie the Ribbon/Farewell to London/The Blacksmith's Fancy," and "The Green Fields of Rossbeigh/The Tinker's Bib." Derrane imparts an immediacy and lift to these Irish traditional reels that indicate to listeners how much fun he is having. It's a quality some artists in a recording studio cannot muster, no matter how luminous their technique.
At its core, Irish traditional music is about spirit, and Derrane's own spirit never flags. Yes, he is a bona fide virtuoso, but he is also an accordionist who spent countless hours playing for dancers in the old ballrooms along Dudley Street in Roxbury, Mass. Simply put, he knows how to keep the feet moving while tugging the heart and stirring the mind.
Feet, heart, and mind are all magnificently served in two waltzes Derrane composed and plays: "Aine" and "Nancy." The first was written for his wife, the second was penned for a friend, and each reveals the tangy Continental sauce and boulevardier spice he brought to "Pastiche for Anne" (also inspired by his wife) on the "Give Us Another" comeback album of 1995.
In his track note for "Aine," Derrane describes its transition from a practice piece to a performance piece, which is how classical musicians develop etudes, and in his evocative playing you can almost hear the rustle of crinoline and slide of shoe leather as couples swirl on a hardwood dance floor.
That ballroom ethos similarly permeates "Nancy," which he describes as "another product of my explorations of the box," glinting again with technique and melodic grace.
Rounding out the album are delectably executed jigs (including "Martin's," composed by Derrane for Jack Martin, who supplied him with a button box for Wolf Trap in 1994), slip jigs, clogs, and another set of hornpipes, "Back of the Haggard/The Rights of Man/The Sweeps." That last hornpipe was previously covered by Derrane on "Give Us Another," and here he and McGann twice switch roles on melody and rhythm.
Bilateral imbalance and sounds of very closely miked or reproduced fingering are audible at times on this recording, but they never distract from its substance. Even the surprising inclusion of "Auld Lang Syne/Taps," intended as a 9-11 homage, is justified by Derrane and McGann's sudden tempo change in the first tune.
"The Man Behind the Box" was recorded during May 2004, the same month and year as Derrane, McGann, and Seamus Connolly's "The Boston Edge" CD, and is a welcome duet coda to that superlative trio effort. Even the printed interview with Derrane by Cape Breton's Paul MacDonald, who has produced all three Mapleshade albums featuring the button accordionist, is focused and fairly succinct and thus stands in sharp contrast to the meandering, overlong essay MacDonald wrote for "Ireland's Harvest" in 2002.
The NEA's National Heritage Fellowship was modeled on an older Japanese concept of recognizing "a living treasure," and that is precisely what Joe Derrane is in Irish traditional music, inside and outside America. "The Man Behind the Box" is another gem from this living treasure who shows no sign of slowing down.