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Kevin Burke

June 19, 1950

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Kevin Burke has said learning the fiddle was a natural part of growing up in an immigrant Irish family in London: “Learn to tie my shoes, ride a bicycle and play music.” Burke, now a resident of Portland, Oregon, has gone back to the roots of the music by focusing in recent years on playing solo. 2007, photograph by Alan Govenar
Kevin Burke, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, photograph by Alan Govenar
Kevin Burke, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Kevin Burke’s parents emigrated from County Sligo, on the west coast of Ireland, to London, where he was born. Though they weren’t musicians, the Burkes made their home a resting place for traveling players. A particular inspiration was fiddler Brendan McGlinchey. Burke also paid regular visits to his grandparents in Ireland, getting an immersion course in the music and culture of his homeland.

Burke took up the fiddle when he was 8, taking lessons and playing with musical visitors. “It was natural: Learn to tie my shoes, ride a bicycle and play music,” he told the Oregonian newspaper in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. By the time he was 13, he was playing in local pubs with his parents’ encouragement.

As a young man, Burke worked for a time on the London stock exchange. “Music kept interfering with every angle of life,” he told the newspaper. “Then I realized it wasn’t music that was getting in the way; it was everything else.” His first “proper engagement” was playing in a Danish National Theater production of The Hostage by Irish writer Brendan Behan.

In 1972, Burke met and played with Arlo Guthrie in Ireland, and the American musician invited him to come to Los Angeles to play on the Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys album. That experience helped Burke focus on a career in music, and he teamed up for a couple of years with Christy Moore. Next came a stint with the highly regarded Bothy Band. Burke left that outfit when he moved to Portland in 1979. He went on to form other groups, the traditional Patrick Street, the more eclectic Open House and the Celtic Fiddle Festival, which included a great Breton fiddle player, Christian Lemaitre.

In recent years, Burke has also focused on playing solo. “I started to think that, with the great popularity of various groups over the last twenty-five years or so, many people have forgotten that this kind of music used to be played mainly solo,” he says on his Web site. “The bands, groups and accompanists are a relatively recent development (in fact one great musician from an older generation told me not long ago that ‘accompanists are a bit like vice presidents — you don’t really need ’em’) so I thought it would be interesting to let people hear the ‘naked’ fiddle once more.”

Whether playing solo or with a band, Burke displays dazzling technique and a vast repertoire. In the words of Nancy Nusz, folklife director of the Oregon Historical Society, when she recommended him for the fellowship, “His performing style makes one feel as though you are sitting in his living room rather than in a concert setting.”

Bibliography
Alarik, Scott. “Catching the Celtic Wave.” The Boston Globe, (June 2002).
Duchene, Paul. “First String.” The Oregonian, (November 1997).
Foyston, John. “NEA Honors Portland Musician” The Oregonian, (June 2002).

Discography
Burke, Kevin. If the Cap Fits. Green Linnet GLCD 3009.
_____. Open House. Green Linnet GLCD 1122.
_____. In Concert. Green Linnet GLCD 1196.
_____. Up Close. Green Linnet GLCD 1052.
_____. Sweeney’s Dream. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40485.
_____. Solo Fiddle. Green Linnet GLCD 1196.
_____. Portland. Green Linnet GLCD 1041.
_____. Learn to Play Irish Fiddle. Homespun, two-DVD set, 2004.

Watch

Kevin Burke, 2002 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Kevin Burke answers the question 'What styles of music do you play?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke answers the question 'What is the polka you were describing?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke answers the question 'What place did music have in your childhood?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke answers the question 'Growing up, what was the traditional context for playing music?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke plays 'The Kid on the Mountain,' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke plays two of John Stenson's reels that he has combined, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke plays a hornpipe, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke plays the song 'The Cottage Groves,' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke answers the question 'What is the distinctive style of music that you have?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke plays 'The Boys of Ballas Daire.' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Kevin Burke, 'The Butterfly,' In Concert, 1999 Green Linnet Records, Inc., GLCD 1196

Kevin Burke, 'Frailach,' Open House, 1982 Green Linnet Records, Inc., GLCD 1122

Kevin Burke, 'The Shepherd's Daughter/Jerusalem Ridge/Michael Kennedy's Reel,' Up Close, 1984 Green Linnet Records, Inc., GLCD 1052