This superb traditional Irish squeeze box man began to play the accordion at age four, worth mentioning but perhaps not such a mark of notoriety in a genre where parents are known to hand tin flutes to their babies sometimes only moments after they struggle their way out of the womb. His mother played the box in the traditional styles and Joe Burke listened to and learned much of the rich traditional music from his native region. He learned his first tune from his uncle, Martin Grace, entitled "Let Erin Remember." From all these juices a sauce uniquely Burke's own eventually came bubbling out. In fact he had a huge impact on Irish music in the '50s and '60s with, among other stylistic traits, his celebrated use of both triplets and five-note rolls, presented with a seemingly endless supply of subtle rhythmic variations. In East Galway he played with the fine composer Paddy Fahy and fiddler Aggie White. The latter playing partner and Burke became experts in the growing repertoire of new tunes being composed by Father P.J. Kelly, a missionary as well as Irish music enthusiast who began composing when some of his musician friends remarked that they were afraid they might run out of traditional tunes someday. One of Burke's first recordings to achieve success was a duo recording entitled Two Champions, a collaboration with fellow All-Ireland fiddle champion Sean Maguire. He eventually moved to America, one of many Irish players lured across the ocean by the promise of a much larger, thriving music scene. This meant plenty of players for Burke to team up with, including Jack Coen, Andy McGann, and Felix Dolan. He won the All-Ireland senior accordion championship in Thurles in 1959 and again the next year in Boyle. The only reason he never won again after that was simply because he never competed again, feeling that the victor should always pass on the chance to winning on to the up and comers, and not hog the limelight.
In 1955 he joined the Leitrim Ceile Band, which included players such as Ned Coleman, Oliver Roland, Sean McGlynn, Paddy Doorley, Jack Derven, and Mick Darcy. Later the band was joined by the legendary flute player Paddy Carty. The members of the band only earned one pound each for the first gig, but things improved a bit by the time Burke left this band in 1962. He began performing a lot in England, where audiences were much larger. In 1961 he visited the United States for the first time, working with singer Sean O' Siochain, harpist Kathleen Watkins, and singer Edmund Browne. Throughout the '60s he took advantage of the growing interest in folk music to work regularly throughout Europe as well as the U.S.A. He collaborated with the great Belfast fiddle player Sean Maguire, among many others.
In 1989 and 1992, Burke represented Ireland at the International Accordion Festival in Montmagny, Quebec, allowing the accordion-crazy audience the rare chance to hear him combine forces with players on the instrument from a variety of completely different genres. This included the Cajun player Marc Savoy and jazz accordion artist Art Van Damme. Burke has given workshops and master classes at home and abroad and has influenced several generations of accordionists. In 1990 he married Anne Conroy, making for a musical union as she played both accordion and guitar with the group Oisin. She and Burke began playing regularly as a duet. ~ Eugene Chadbourne