Joe “Accordion” Burke

Honored February 20, 2010

On Joe Burke 

The notion of being an iconic figure wholly withing a traditional idiom would seem to be something of a contradiction in terms. Surely the very concept of remaining within a tradition would seem to limit the degree to which a player can, or would want to “stand out.” 

And yet, Joe Burke, whose playing is profoundly entrenched within the tradition, is just such an iconic figure. 

Paradoxically, part of what makes his playing stand out is that while many players today, great musicians amongst them, push outside the boundaries of the tradition to make their mark, Joe, by contrast, has gone in the opposite direction. He has dug deep within the tradition and the experience that the listener has is very different. 

For me, the quintessential experience of listening to Joe’s playing starts with pure pleasure at hearing flawlessly executed music, but goes well beyond that. The real discovery and the devilment occur when one tries to play along with what he is doing, note for note. It is not just sheer dexterity and technique that make his playing inimitable; it is those qualities combined with his interpretations’ instinctive nature. 

His playing is so supple,his ornaments so subtle and so “right,” that there can be an illusion of simplicity, which is the feeling of truth. His insight into a tune’s heart is so accurate that the listener will have the feeling “Ah, of course, that’s the way the tune must be played.” It is this epiphany which uniquely signals the iconic interpreter of traditional music. 

Joe is a true original, within the very heart of the tradition. Without seeking recourse to arbitrary or showy devices to draw attention to the extraordinary potential of his tradition, he has, quietly and beautifully, defined what our music is for generations of musicians past, present, and to come. 

— Gregory Grene 

Joe Burke is not just a musician. He is an Irish man that exudes confidence in the music he plays and the race from which he derives his sense of dignity and honour. He is thoughtful, witty, and for all the spontaneity of his humour, which is legendary, he is a very deliberate thoughtful man.  

The confraternity of Connemara people who journeyed across London to be in his company on the occasions of his annual visits here, is a tribute to his own contact with Iar Connacht—the West in his young life and the abiding genuine affection and high esteem with which he is regarded by them in turn to this day.  

It is not just the people of the west but a wider public who yearned for Joe’s company and his music. Musicians would gravitate to wherever he was playing in London. On the many happy times when I was privileged to have Joe in London for festivals and events, I would know that the “faithful” would turn up. His visits to London in the 70s when I arrived here were a “tonic” to a besieged community, especially rural people who grew up with love for the music and the old Gaelic culture of games, music and dance. Joe’s engagement with all three is well known and documented.  

He personified and was identified with all that was wholesome in the old Irish tradition. In the 70s and 80s his presence emboldened and enriched the self-esteem of the London Irish at a time when the stock of the Irish was low amongst strange people who did not always view the Irish in a positive light because of the history of the two islands and the resurgence of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  

The quality of Joe’s musical performance was and is of the highest standard. It is a cultivated distillation of the music of South East Galway. It is a tribute to Joe that he has remained a true interpreter of that tradition. Whilst his own playing is innovative and creative, his music sill reflects that older tradition of which he is justly proud. When Irish music was not very popular, Burke’s music held a magical appeal that has endured.  

— Dr. Brendan Mulkere