Joe “Banjo” Burke

Honored posthumously, February 5, 2005 

From the CD "30 Years of Joe Banjo Burke LIVE, Volume 1" 

Joe grew up in Johnstown, County Kilkenny, the youngest of sixteen. His father was a classical flautist and singer. John McCormack’s recordings were always playing, so you could say Joe learned to sing from him. But the King family and other traditional players from Galmae would often stop in at the Burke’s for an evening’s music and Joe was drawn to the traditional and folk music. 

He started out with the accordion, but soon got a mandolin from Frankie Boland. It wasn’t until he was fourteen he came across his first banjo, and settled on that as his instrument of choice. He was strongly influenced by the Dubliners, and the Clancy Brothers, but always had the softest place in his heart for the old traditional songs and the sentimental songs of John McCormack. 

He was delighted when Paddy Reilly hit the top of the charts because they liked the same songs. I remember one night at the Gloc Joe sang a song for me and said “Now this is a great song and nobody’s recording it.” On Paddy’s next album there it was – ”The Rose of Allendale.” 

But Joe wasn’t just a musician. He went to work early in life as a farm laborer. He and his cousin were well known among the local farmers as the best turnip pullers in the vicinity. He hurled with the Fenians, Johnstown’s hurling club, and developed an uncanny skill at the game. He sang songs of hard men who did hard work, and he was one of them. Those same hands that flew over the banjo in New York also dug ditches in Birmingham, lugged dynamite for the pipeline through Thompson Pass, built airbases, removed asbestos, and cleaned up oil spills in Alaska, and poured concrete in Chicago.  Joe sang a lot of rebel songs and he sang them from the heart. They were songs that honored brave men that fought against soldiers.  His high regard and support did not include those who disgraced the Provos by targeting innocent civilians. Joe was well known as a musician and character in the bars in New York and the Catskills, but he was also a devoted father who often passed up gigs to be home with the kids if I had to work. 

– Bridget Burke, 2004

No one who ever heard Joe “Banjo” Burke will ever forget his powerful singing or nimble-fingered tenor banjo playing.  His voice, his instrumental prowess and his sheer physical presence commanded respect, and many a noisy bar fell silent the moment Joe began to sing.  Joe played at many concerts and festivals, but he was at his best for a late-night audience in a congenial musical pub like the famous Bunratty Bar in the Bronx, the Glocca Morra on Manhattan’s east side or Puzzles Pub in the Catskills. 

His celebrated musical partnership with Kerry fiddler Johnny Cronin resulted in a 1977 duet LP with pianist Gerry Wallace that remains a much-sought-after collectors item.  Joe’s other frequent musical collaborators during his three decades in New York included his singing wife Bridget, balladeers Jerry Meegan and Donie Carroll, button accordion greats Joe “Accordion” Burke and Johnny “Accordion” Cronin, fiddle virtuoso Andy McGann and Wexford-born button accordionist/fiddler Tom Dunne. 

Joe succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease in December 2003 at the age of 57, survived by Bridget and their children Siobhan, Rory and Finbarr. The following June, thousands turned out on McLean Avenue in Yonkers for a great day and night of music devoted to his memory. Joe’s musical legacy is being preserved on a series of posthumously issued recordings that includes a reissue of his Hours of Glory album of rebel and GAA songs as well as live recordings from the Glocca Morra and Eagle Tavern. 

– Don Meade

Bridget, Joe, Sean McGlynn and Andy McGann at Noel Higgins' wedding - from the CD "30 Years of Joe Banjo Burke LIVE, Volume 1"