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The Music Master of Grove Lane Joe Derrane Delivers from Heart and Hearth

By Sean Smith, special to the BIR, October 20, 2010

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

“Grove Lane” is to Joe Derrane what “Abbey Road” was to The Beatles.
No, you won’t hear Boston’s legendary accordion player doing covers of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or “Here Comes the Sun” on his new CD, which will be out this month. But as the Fab Four memorialized the London recording studio’s influence on their music, so Derrane has likewise paid tribute to the place that has had a significant impact on his vocation — and his life.
Located in Randolph, south of Boston, Grove Lane is the street the 80-year-old Derrane has called home for 51 years now, where he and his beloved, steadfast wife Anne, who died in 2008, raised their family. The house on Grove Lane also has borne witness to the ebb and flow of Derrane’s musical career, including its remarkable rebirth in the 1990s and continuation to the present day.
So, appropriately enough, during the summer of 2009 Grove Lane served as a recording studio for Derrane and his friend and accompanist, guitarist John McGann. The two put together 12 tracks, showcasing Derrane’s distinctive accordion style — marked by a penchant for expertly employed triplets and masterful chord progressions and substitutions — through an assortment of jigs, reels, hornpipes and other tunes, seven of them composed by Derrane.
The result is, quite literally, a homespun affair — music that feels straight from heart and hearth, because it is, and has been for so long. That’s why “Grove Lane” has an obvious, and deeply felt, dedication.
“This one was for Anne,” said Derrane, interviewed during one recent early autumn afternoon, of the Longford-born woman to whom he was married for 53 years. “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.
“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 [at the MBTA]. She never complained.”
Derrane unhesitatingly credits Anne’s presence and support for his re-emergence in the Irish music scene, a story that has been widely told but remains as fresh as ever: Son of Irish immigrants becomes a mainstay of Boston’s famous Irish dance halls in the 1940s and 50s, but after the scene begins to dry up is forced to forsake Irish music for pop music. Then in 1994, a record company releases new versions of 78s he’d recorded back in the day, rumors of his death or incapacitation prove exaggerated, and he’s back doing gigs and introducing himself to new generations of Irish music lovers.
While “Grove Lane” does have its fond reminiscences — with tributes to Anne, late Cape Breton fiddling master Jerry Holland, and Derrane’s mentor Tommy Sullivan among the compositions included — there also is a definitive move forward, something that has characterized Derrane’s work for several years now.
“What I’ve been trying to do is to elevate the status of the accordion,” he explains. “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.”
Derrane puts his belief into action on the album’s third track, a strikingly intricate tango he composed. “I wanted the use of full-bodied, right-hand chords and the more extensive use of the accordion’s left-hand bass buttons,” he says of “Tango Derrane.” “But with the Irish button-accordion it’s all push-pull, which has its limitations. So I just decided to write a tango that focused on the instrument’s strengths. It’s not meant be a show-off kind of thing, just to show what a button accordion can do.”
On another track, Derrane offers up a medley of two other originals, “Fancy Free,” a schottische, and a barn dance that also carries the “Grove Lane” title. Although separate dance forms — and in the case of the schottische, a seldom-heard one — in Derrane’s hands they form an irresistible blend.
It’s not axiomatic that every great composition has to have a great story behind it, but that seems to be the case with most of Derrane’s tunes. “The Prayer Reel” — the middle tune in the first track — for instance, has a very personal and spiritual origin: “Anne was at death’s door several years ago, and I was in the hospital chapel twice a day, seven days a week. Somehow, she pulled through, and I always believed it was the Blessed Mother who interceded. This was my way to say ‘Thank you.’”
“Breakfast with Jerry” recalls a week-long series of morning repasts with Jerry Holland: “We were both playing at a festival, and the food just wasn’t really to our liking, so we’d go into town and get makings for breakfast. Jerry would come over every day and make omelets; I was in charge of the toast, coffee, and dishwashing. We had a wonderful time, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Jerry — I miss him a lot.”
Derrane wrote “The Lost Jig” — which precedes “Breakfast with Jerry” on the second track — back in 1956 for accordionist and inspiration Tommy Sullivan, then forgot about it until more than 50 years later, when Sullivan’s son enclosed a copy of it in a Christmas card.
“Tommy was a big influence. His music had a lot of drive and energy, and I was fascinated by what he did. But he was a dear friend, too. When Anne and I had become engaged, he had a chance to talk with her, and later she told me that he had said, ‘Do you realize what you’re marrying into? If you take the music away from Joe, you’ll kill him.’ Of course, Anne knew that.”
Derrane’s renditions of traditional tunes, including “Mac’s Fancy,” “The Monaghan,” “Return to Milltown” and “Toss the Feathers,” sound no less robust and lively through his Gaillard button accordion. The full, rich sound makes it seem as if Derrane is playing two, if not more, accordions at once.
“He’s just a stellar musician, with an impeccable groove and sense of timing,” says John McGann, who’s played with Derrane for more than a decade. “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.”
Considering how full of music Derrane’s life has been, one might expect him to have grown up in the paradigmatic musical household. But while his parents — Helen (Galvin) from Roscommon and Patrick from Inishmore — were both musicians, their talents didn’t directly figure in Derrane’s musical development.
“When I was very little, my mom used to play me asleep with the violin, though I never heard her. The story goes that one day, she put the violin down and I either rolled over on it or picked it up — but that was the end of it. My father played the accordion, but I never knew that until I came home from school one day and heard him playing it.
“Where I got inspired to play was through radio shows: I was five years old, and I’d hear an accordion and come running to listen to it.”
Derrane, of course, tapped that childhood enthusiasm and went on to leave his indelible mark on Boston Irish music history. Yet it’s worth noting that one of the most important events in his life took place not in Boston, but in New York City, where he lived for part of the 1950s.
“I’d been doing gigs at the Tuxedo Ballroom, but I hurt my shoulder and couldn’t play for a week or so, and I offered to help out in other ways, like working the cloakroom,” he says. “One night, I was talking to the ballroom owner, and I noticed this pretty little girl kind of walking around us in a circle. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, and there she was; and she said, ‘It’s “Ladies Choice” time.’ I was smitten right then and there.”
He didn’t see her again for two months, but then Derrane began to keep regular company with Anne Connaughton. A year and a half later, she followed him back to Boston, and in 1955 they were married.
“Waltzing with Anne,” one of the more manifestly emotional tracks on “Grove Lane,” evokes the all-too-rare occasions — like that memorable night at the Tuxedo — when the Derranes were able to dance together. “She loved to dance, but I was usually bu