The Joe Cooley Tapes

Joe Cooley sits with his accordion, a cigarette in one hand.
This photo of Joe Cooley was made by Eric Thompson on the porch of the legendary Colby Street house in Berkeley, CA.
Joe Cooley playing his accordion, his eyes closed and a cigarette in his mouth.
This photo of Joe Cooley was made by Eric Thompson on the porch of the legendary Colby Street house in Berkeley, CA.

Joe Cooley was born in Peterswell, Co. Galway in 1924. He influenced an entire generation of musicians and music-lovers with his powerful, clear, passionately joyful and unique way of playing Irish accordion — or as Joe called it “the box”. An excellent CD “Cooley” can be found on Gael-Linn CEFCD 044 compiled by fine accordion player Tony MacMahon. There is ample early history there about Joe and the history around many of his signature tunes. Joe emigrated to the US in 1953, having already established a distinguished playing career with the Tulla Ceili Band and many other fine musicians.

Kevin Keegan playing accordion.
This photo of Kevin Keegan was made by Eric Thompson on the porch of the legendary Colby Street house in Berkeley, CA.

The recordings here were made by me or Jeremy Kammerer on his Norelco tape recorder from about 1970 to 1973 with an understanding with Joe that it was ok to record but not to be too obtrusive about it. Mostly I operated the recorder because Jeremy was playing banjo. We were also given a few cassettes and one is included here of Joe playing with Miliosa McWeeney Lundy on banjo, a fine musician living in Oakland, CA, then from Los Angeles and used with her permission.

I first heard Jeremy Kammerer, Eric Thompson, and Jody Stecher play Irish music at the Dickens Fair in 1970. I then met Joe Cooley through Jeremy, who had met Tony MacMahon in Ireland in the ’60s. Tony told Jeremy to look up Joe when he returned to San Francisco. Jeremy looked up “Cooley, Joe” in the phone book, called him up, and after explaining his enthusiasm for Irish music, Joe said “It sounds as though you’d be great at it!” Joe and Jeremy met across a wide cultural divide. Joe was able to look beyond the long hair and absence of obvious employment and appreciate our love of the music. Joe began inviting Jeremy and friends including myself and others over to his house on Tuesday nights after Patricia Kennelly’s accordion lesson for some tunes, a beer and some of Nancy Cooley’s fine cake. Joe charmed us with so many stories of home and one, the hunting of hedgehogs, was so interesting that when we needed a band name Eric Thompson, lifelong fan of Pogo, hit on the hedgehog — “graineog” as we understood it and suggested “The Graineog Ceilidhe Band”. It didn’t have the proper geography of “The Tulla Ceili Band” (Joe’s band) or “The Augrhim Slopes” (Kevin Keegan’s band) to Joe and Kevin. When pressed Joe told us the hedgehog was “just the warmest, furriest little creature”. The less fine aspects of the “graineog” became a twinkle in Joe’s eye. But nevermind, there began a glorious decade with Jeremy where we dropped everything and began to learn the tunes and social mores around Joe and his good friend Kevin Keegan, another splendid box player. We saw them weekly, daily if possible, recording, practicing, coaxing when the tunes were too hard. We practiced by busking, and shortly found ourselves with many fine pals playing Irish music at Freight and Salvage Coffee House, Dickens Fairs, Renaissance Faires, newly opened pub The Starry Plough in Berkeley, and then the Plough in the Stars in San Francisco, and innumerable parties. Everybody who happened to be along learning the tunes was “in the band” and sometimes we numbered in the 20s or more, sometimes trios or quartets.

Joe would sometimes ask if the recorder was on before he started because he knew we were learning these tunes as fast as we could get them. Mostly he ignored the recording aspect and we never discussed with him what might happen to these recordings later. It never occurred to us. The recorder sometimes starts after the tune has begun, sometimes breaks off, the tunes flash with sublime brilliance and the odd missed note here and there. We recorded under every circumstance from intimate visits at home to big parties or pub sessions and everything in between. Joe was a consummate dance musician as well as accompanist when wanted. Some of the recordings have audible dancing. He played at many feis competitions, and we recorded everything we could get. He told me that what was actually important in music was “the sunshine between the notes.” We were happy. What we didn’t know is that as Joe began to contract the illness that killed him, he was less and less up for sessions. He still played with us and for us, but would get part way through a tune and put the box down. We left the states in the fall of 1973 to go to Ireland where we’d heard Joe was headed but we didn’t know how ill he was. We thought we’d go via Japan, since we knew if we went east we’d end up west. We played music to survive and eventually taught English for 6 months. We had no idea how quickly our funds would disappear or how hard we would need to work to end up in Ireland a year later. To our great sorrow in December 1973 Sue Thompson and other friends wrote to tell us Joe had died.

Jeremy and I have determined now late in our lives that sharing this music is better than not doing so. Wish we’d done it decades ago but we met with a variety of opinions on this plus our own inertia and activity staying alive slowed us down greatly. My hope is that people will participate in feedback, tune names, corrections, important things to add, and receive this gift in the spirit it is given. It is entirely our gift no strings attached. Tunes are in mp3 format. We have much more information and some wonderful stories about Joe, if anyone is interested just write.

We’ve gotten a lot of help particularly from WB Reid with digital work and cataloging, Hilary Hart, Sue Thompson, Eric Thompson, Will Spires, Joe Murtagh, Sean Sullivan, Chuck Pliske, Hank Bradley, Jody Stecher, Dan Tenenbaum and lots of others and if I left someone out I apologize. None of this would have happened without Jeremy Kammerer.

Joe Cooley, Kevin Keegan, and Seamus Cooley in Chicago in the 60s

These recordings were made in a Chicago pub and given anonymously to me and Jeremy Kammerer when we were living in the Bay Area learning from and playing with Joe and Kevin in the early 70s. I recently recovered two cd discs each containing one long track. The fidelity is low — the music is superb. WB Reid was able to identify the non-existent spaces between tunes and insert numbered tracks and apply some noise reduction. I researched tune titles with help from Becky Deryckx and WB. Becky provided research and editorial advice. Both WB and Becky provided much needed encouragement to finish this project. Casual though they are, these recordings are the largest and most animated store of live playing by Joe and Kevin and Seamus that I have heard so far. We hope this adds to the fine recordings of Joe and Kevin (see below). My sense is that Joe, Kevin, and Seamus are mostly playing together here. Sometimes Joe plays solo on the box and you can hear his clear phrasing and lonesome sound. Seamus, a highly accomplished flute player, also plays solo on a few tunes. We hope you can enjoy these tunes and fragments of tunes in the spirit in which they were played, freely and with great heart.

Seamus and Joe Cooley were from a musical family in Peterswell, Co. Galway in Ireland. Both parents played melodeon and there were dances most every evening at their home, where Joe learned accordion and Seamus learned flute. Both joined The Tulla Ceili band, which toured America in 1958 and brought Seamus to Chicago where he joined Joe who had emigrated to the US in 1954. They became fixtures in the music scene performing on radio and regularly at clubs and founding the Glenside Ceili Band. Joe Cooley came to San Francisco in 1965, and Seamus remained on in Chicago performing with his wife and other musicians at festivals, pubs, and fleadhs.

Kevin Keegan was born on his family farm in Tiernascragh, East Galway in 1924, the same year Joe Cooley was born. A close friendship with the great Tipperary accordion player Paddy O’Brien was a major early inspiration. His passions for music and hurling created a huge reputation for him in Ireland, where he mastered the two row B/C accordion. Kevin was a founding member of The Aughrim Slopes ceili band and when they toured the US in 1956 Kevin stayed on in Chicago. His old friends Seamus and Joe Cooley welcomed him into the thriving music scene of clubs, performances, and contests.

Kevin moved to San Francisco in the early 70s where his friendship and music association with Joe Cooley continued. In the Bay Area they introduced Irish music to a whole generation of young musicians who were infatuated with their musicianship, wit, and stories, and with Joe’s articulation, lift and the lonesome quality in his playing. Dancers loved the music. Kevin was a powerhouse driving the sessions. Joe and Kevin with fine Bay Area Irish and American musicians created The Graineog Ceilidhe Band, a popular performing band with a flexible membership. Joe died in Ireland on December 21, 1973 and Kevin died in San Francisco on December 20, 1978. They left a permanent void in the San Francisco Irish music community.

Kevin has an excellent CD The Music of Kevin Keegan produced by Joe Burke & Charlie Lennon with assistance from Vincent Keegan, providing helpful biographical information. Joe’s CD Cooley produced by Tony MacMahon, is a splendid tour of the earlier playing of Joe, highlighting his power and drive.

Cathie Whitesides
Seattle, WA 2011