Joe Burke was born in Kilnadeema, Loughrea, County Galway, in 1939. With musical inspiration from both his parents, he began playing the accordion at the age of four, starting on one row of the double-row Hohner G/G#, then moving to a Paolo Soprani accordeon. The tuning of the B/C was then quite uncommon in Irish traditional music - Paddy O'Brien of Tipperary had pioneered this system only in the 1950s. Locally, he was influenced by accordeonists Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan. Both Paddy O'Brien and Kevin Keegan played for a while with the Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band. The Ballinakill Céilí Band 1930s recordings were played in the house, and also, the recordings made by Sligo fiddle-player Michael Coleman made in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s were then well-known among Irish musicians and had a big impact on Burke's playing. In November 1955 Joe Burke gave his first public performance.
The musical household of the Downeys of Leitrim Cross (four miles from Kilnadeema) was a significant factor in Joe Burke's development, and in 1956 he and Padden Downey formed the Leitrim Céilí Band who then began playing for dances around County Galway and beyond. They were joined at different stages by accordeonists Seán McGlynn and Mick Darcy, Paddy Carty, Ambrose Moloney and Tony Molloy (flutes), Paddy Doorhy and Michael Joe Dooley, Aggie Whyte, and Séamus Connolly (fiddles).
In February 1958, the band played in England for the first time. They first competed at the All-Ireland fleadh in 1959 in Thurles, and won the senior championship. Invitations began coming in from a little further afield, and the band was that year approached by James O'Neill of Dublin Records with whom they made a record (It's Irish dance time). In 1961, Joe Burke toured the U.S. for the first time with a group led by Seán Ó Síocháin. (See here for a ticket for one of the performances.)
His first solo album Galway's own Joe Burke was released in 1971. During the 1970s and 1980s he toured extensively, for instance with a group assembled by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (the 'Comhaltas Champions'). From 1988 Joe Burke lived in St.Louis full-time for a few years, often playing at McGurk's Pub, and also hosting radio programmes in two stations, one of them the "Ireland in America" programme on KDHX St.Louis (1989-1991).
In 1990 Joe Burke married Anne Conroy, another east Galway musician whose father was a fiddle player of note. She won the Slogadh All Ireland senior championship on the accordion in 1977 and 1978, and was a member of Oisín from 1980 to 1987 with whom she toured extensively. Having returned to Loughrea in 1992, Joe Burke continues to teach and perform music.
Burke is the recipient of a number of music awards, beginning with RTÉ's Traditional Musician of the Year (1970). Some others were the AIB Traditional Musician of the Year, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish World (both 1997), an award in Musical Mastery (Boston College, 2000), and Gradam an Chomhaltais (2003). A Joe Burke Tribute Concert was held in Galway in 1997 on his reception of the AIB award.
There are circa 250 items of correspondence, mostly dating to Joe Burke's time as member and secretary of the Leitrim Céilí Band. Beyond the management of a céilí band, and the touring venues (many of them now ´historical´ venues), this gives some valuable insights into Irish society at the time, and the public attending these events.
Within Irish society, traditional music was not so highly regarded as it might seem from the band's schedule; there was a certain stigma attached to it comparable to that associated with the Irish language, in that traditional music was a label of backwardness, a shrinking from modern life. The label Céilí and Old Time for the repertoire a céilí band was expected to have (thereby including old songs played in waltz-time) seems like apt commentary on this notion. Increasingly, 'modern' dance music became a contender for the traditional music, and a Céilí and Dance was an event where a cross-over took place. The descriptive 'modern' or 'dance' refers to popular ballroom dances, such as quicksteps and foxtrots, danced to swing music. It seems that around 1955 Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann held a meeting in County Galway where this cross-over was discussed, and the only céilí bands that never took modern music into their repertoire in that county were the Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band, and the Leitrim Céilí Band itself. Rock and Roll only became another serious competitor in the dance halls from the 1960s onwards and also finds some commentary in the archives; this, however, was played by showbands. Counteracting this trend, the activities of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann which had been founded in 1951, went a certain way to re-popularise instrumental and vocal music not only by encouraging teaching and performance, but more so by tapping into both the nationalist spirit, and the Irish 'sporting spirit', namely by organising competitions. These were the Fleadhanna Ceoil, held by age group, on county, province, and national levels.
The archives offer some windows into rural Ireland of the late 1950s and early 1960s where most of the Leitrim Céilí Band performances took place: most revolved around parish halls in small towns, and the larger halls in Galway and Ennis. Dances were usually held on Sundays or on feast-days such as Ascension Thursday, or on St.Patrick's Day. The vigils of feast-days were strictly kept, and therefore Saturdays were not appropriate for céilís. There were no performances during Lent, and during that period many bands were invited to play in venues in England instead. Some of the venues documented in the archives for 1956 to 1962 no longer exist or were changed beyond recognition. Those recorded include The Hangar, and the Astaire Ballroom (Galway city), the Crystal Ballroom (Kiltimor), St.Cuan's Hall (Ahascragh near Ballinasloe), The Phoenix Hall (Tuam), the Christian Brothers' Hall (Letterfrack), the Queen's Hotel Ballroom (Ennis), St.Patrick's Hall (Corofin), Killanena Hall (Feakle), St.John's Pavilion (Limerick city), St.Brigid's Hall (Tubbercurry), Loftus Hall Ballroom (Ballymote), the Patrician Hall (Carrick-on-Shannon), the New East End Ballroom (Scartaglin), the Emerald Ballroom (Boherbue) (Cork), the Tara Ballroom (Courtown Harbour) (Wexford), the Muintir na Tíre Hall (Portroe) (near Nenagh), The Hibernian Ballroom (Dublin), The Galtymore (Cricklewood/London).
The work of Irish musicians was organised and protected by the Association of Irish Traditional Musicians, a trade union which the members of the Leitrim Céilí Band joined in late 1959. Over the seven years of Burke's involvement with the band, payment for the usually eight-member outfit varied between £ 14 and £ 20. In 1961, the organisers of the County Galway Fleadh Ceoil justify their decision not to pay travel expenses by pointing to the fact that "the increased interest shown recently in Irish Music and Ceili Dancing is ample compensation for the difficulties encountered. The fleadhanna throughout the country have done much to revive the Céilí Music and Dancing and are happy to know that this has meant increased business for the numerous Céilí Bands."
Also, the collection contains nearly 400 press-cuttings, concert programmes and other printed (semi-archival) material from concerts and other music venues where Joe Burke played. The larger and the more prestigious venues included Carnegie Hall (New York), The Royal Albert Hall (London), Unuesque Hall (Paris) and The Great American Music Hall (San Francisco), but the collection reflects the wide variety of venues, from the small pub to all sizes of concert stages around Ireland, England, the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) continental Europe. Some of the music festivals and events Burke performed at were the Clann Gael series of concerts in the US that included Frank Patterson (1972), the Detroit Irish Ethnic Festival (1981), the San Francisco Fort Mason Foundation Folk Festival (1981), the Irish Folk Festival (Washington 1988), the Québec Carrefour Mondial de l'Accordéon (1989), the Copenhagen Irish Festival (1990), the Tyneside Festival (1996), the Alaska Folk Festival (Anchorage), the Edinburgh Folk Festival, the San Francisco Celtic Music and Arts Festival (all 1996), the Willie Clancy Memorial Concerts at the end of the eponymous festival in Miltown Malbay (e.g. 1997, 2000), the Festival Gooik (Belgium 2002).