Derrane, Joe, 1930-2016

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Joseph P. Derrane (1930-2016), a Boston-based, Irish-American musician and composer, was well-known for his innovative approach to Irish traditional music on the D/C# button accordion. Born in Boston to Irish immigrants Patrick J. Derrane and Helen E. (Galvin) Derrane, Derrane grew up in Roxbury and attended Mission Church High School. Both his parents and younger brothers, George and Paul, were musical.

From age 10 to 12 Derrane took lessons on the single-row melodeon with Cork-born Jerry O’Brien. As a teenager, Derrane taught himself to play piano accordion and the two-row D/C# button accordion. His musical influences included the German-American melodeon player John “Irish Dutchman” Kimmel. He performed regularly as a soloist and with groups, at house parties, Dudley Street dance halls, and other venues, as well as on live radio.

Copley Records invited high-school senior Derrane to record commercially. The resulting recordings, with accompaniment by pianist John Connors, were praised for their precision, ornaments, and rhythmic variations. He went on to record with various collaborators, including his mentor Jerry O’Brien.

Derrane met Anne Connaughton in the early 1950s while doing a series of gigs in New York City. They married in 1955. By 1959 they settled in Randolph, Massachusetts with their two young children, Joseph and Sheila. With a family to support, and with Irish dance hall audiences declining, Derrane shifted his musical focus to piano accordion, keyboard, and synthesizer. Between 1962 and 1989, while holding various administrative positions at the MBTA, he performed jazz, pop, and repertoire from other ethnic traditions, including ten years in a duo with his son. In the late 1980s, Derrane retired from the MBTA, then from music, and took up part-time office work for St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Norwood.

In 1993, Rego Irish Records and Tapes compiled Derrane’s earliest recordings and re-released them on CD. Following this re-release, Derrane was persuaded to try the button accordion again. An invitation to Virginia’s 1994 Wolf Trap Festival ended his decades-long hiatus from the button box. The success of Derrane’s performance with piano accompanist Felix Dolan prompted Derrane’s return to Irish music, launching international performances, recording, and teaching.

The choice of instrument was integral to his playing style. At a 1994 accordion festival in Québec, Derrane tried a button box by French accordion maker Bertrand Gaillard and soon ordered a customized instrument. The first D/C# accordion that he purchased from Gaillard had 12 basses, with voicings of Derrane’s design. In 1997, he purchased a second box, based on the maker’s Cristal model, with 14 basses and a slightly modified swing tuning on the treble side. At Derrane’s request, the bass couplers were removed to allow both major and minor options.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized Derrane with a National Heritage Fellowship. He retired from performing following the release of his final CD, Grove Lane (2010) with guitarist John McGann, but continued to teach privately. Derrane died July 22, 2016 after a long illness.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Joe Derrane Irish music materials Boston College. John J. Burns Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Sullivan, Thomas Francis, 1916-1958 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Boston MA US
Accordian music
Irish in Massachusetts


Birth 1930

Death 2016-07-22



Ark ID: w6mh8gjk

SNAC ID: 88017993