Galway County's Joe Burke, who will be appearing at the Dubliner Wednesday through Sunday, is one of the foremost exponents of Irish traditional music and is generally considered to be the greatest button accordionist of all time. Nicknamed "the Irish Paganini," Burke has transformed his instrument by emulating the phrasing of fiddlers and pipers, and his style and repertoire have been widely copied.
"The accordion has been used in Ireland for about 125 years," Burke points out. "It got popular at the beginning because of the house dancing -- it was an instrument that was fairly loud and could be heard, and gave kind of a lively atmosphere to the place. It lost popularity for a while in the early part of the '30s and '40s, but then became really popular again in the '50s and a lot of the younger people play it now."
Burke, who is also a master flutist, first came to the United States in 1961 on a concert tour, and currently splits his time between New York and Galway. "The folk revival of the '60s meant a lot to traditional music here and in Ireland," he says. "It gave it a new kind of popularity, and a lot of people who had never been involved in traditional music of any kind seemed to be coming out." The initial interest was in Irish song, a reflection of the popularity of the Clancy Brothers, but with the arrival of the Chieftains, the Bothy Band, Burke and others in the '70s, the fervid instrumental tradition was popularized as well.
Burke will be joined at the Dubliner by Michael Cooney from Tipperary, an All-Ireland champion uilleann piper, and Dublin guitarist and singer Terry Carpen. "We get together to do a few places each year, but we're not a regular group," Burke says.
For that, he might look to Washington's own Irish Tradition. "They've had a great impact on your city," Burke says. "I remember years ago doing a concert in Washington and looking forward to going into the Dubliner to meet [accordionist] Billy McComiskey -- he's excellent, [fiddler] Brendan Mulvihill and [guitarist-singer] Andy O'Brien. We used to have some good times there."
The Tradition will be celebrating their 10th anniversary today with a 3 p.m. concert at Bartley Lounge in American University's Gray Hall. When they first got together, their prospects did not include longevity.
"Of course not," says O'Brien, who recalls being so broke heading for opening night at the Dubliner that he had to use a New York subway token as a pick. Mulvihill was down to the last four strands on his bow. "It started off as a week-long gig. We sort of played it day-to-day for a start and then it became week-to-week. Before we knew it, we were sort of part of the place, and we settled in there. Then after 3 1/2 years, when it came time to leave the Dubliner, we realized we'd been at it too long to give up, and we went on from there."