Music Feature: Childsplay — The Last Waltz

By Glenn Rifkin

Childsplay, the celebrated flash-band of fiddlers who have come together around the holidays for more than 30 years, is calling it quits.

Childsplay outside the National Heritage Museum in Lexington a few years ago. Photo: courtesy of the artists.

The old adage “All good things must come to an end” is actually a real downer of a sentiment. Why must good things end? For example, Childsplay, the celebrated flash-band of fiddlers who have come together around the holidays for more than 30 years to perform a small tour of shows, could seemingly go on forever. The brainchild of Bob Childs, a Cambridge-based violin maker, Childsplay brings together a group of world-class violinists, such as Hanneke Cassel, Bonnie Bewick, and Sheila Falls Keohane, playing mostly original Celtic tunes, on instruments handcrafted by Childs. This simple premise has produced three decades worth of wonderful music, seven albums, and three DVDs. But alas, due to intractable financial concerns, Childsplay will be doing its last concerts in November, culminating in a two-performance finale at Sanders Theater in Cambridge on November 24.

Bob Childs spoke to The Arts Fuse about this last waltz.

Arts Fuse: What will you miss most about Childsplay?

Bob Childs – our music has inspired people to stick with the instrument and take it to new levels. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Bob Childs: That’s easy:  all the friendships and seeing everybody all together on the stage. It’s been such a big part of my life for so long, it’s going to leave a hole in my life.  My solace is that we’ve made seven albums, we’ll have three films and I’ll have memories of our experiences together. Even more, one of the most important things for me is having that collective voice of so many people playing violins I made. To have that projected out in the world, it’s such a powerful experience for me. I’ll miss that as well.

AF: What was the most personally satisfying part of this decades-long endeavor?

Childs: It’s really just the whole experience. I once had this dream of an inlaid violin with a small boy crying, which related to my early years of living in five different foster homes. It’s incredibly rewarding to know I created these vehicles for that voice. It’s such a richness for me when I look back at having been a violin maker for over 40 years. I’ve had an opportunity to forge these personal connections with these people, who are then amplifying this part of my own experience. That’s the deepest and most satisfying part for me.

AF: The idea that you get to be up there yourself, playing with these amazing musicians, must be pretty intense.

(Laughter). I know, it totally is. The joy coming out of the music, that’s another thing I’ll miss. And the response from the audience is something I’ll miss. At the core, Childsplay is this emotional flow that happens through the music and the incredible response we get back and that the music is received.  It’s very powerful to be a part of that.

AF: Are there any special moments that stay with you after all these years of performing”

Childs: I love to go out and talk to the audience, at the intermission and at the end, and there have been many times when a young adult will come up to me and say, “You know, I almost gave up the violin, but I saw your show and it inspired me to keep going. And now I’m a professional musician.”  Things like that, where our music has inspired people to stick with the instrument and take it to new levels.

AF: Your concept worked for more than 30 years. Is the business model obsolete or are there other reasons to stop now?

Childs: Great question, and not an easy answer.  Part of it is the business model. For example, the only time you sell CDs now is at concerts. Everybody gets their music from Spotify and places like that. Musicians get paid very little money from Spotify. You can’t make much money from CDs, and you can only make money from ticket sales. But our band is so large, and maybe in that way, the business model is obsolete. In my experience, it’s really hard for people to hear about Childsplay, to expand our audience. I had great hopes that our last film, which was shown on American public television for four years, would make a difference. And a lot of people would write me from that and tell me how inspired they became. But in the commercial music world, it’s such a dominant force, that it’s really hard to penetrate. Think about around here, WUMB, for example. You don’t hear fiddle music there much at all.  It’s really hard to hear the music. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was much more common and much more accessible for people to hear it. That’s another factor that’s impacted us.

AF: It feels like, with shows like Celtic Sojourn and other offerings, there is still a real love of this music.

Childs: I don’t mean to say there isn’t, but as a business model, to expand your audience is difficult. I’m not bitter about it. I gave it my best effort, and then I let it go. People are overwhelmed with things coming at them.  I don’t take it personally.

AF: Something magical happens on stage when all of these great musicians get going. Can you describe it?

Childs: There’s this kind of collective experience that’s so much bigger than any one of us.  We all feel it. There’s a kind of energy that gets released in the music. There’s a way in which people so admire each other’s musicianship. Everyone in the band is the leader of their own band or an all-star in their own right. But then they hear someone at their level doing something amazing and it inspires them to do something amazing. The way people play off each other raises it to new heights each time. I love that.

Childsplay wearing a whole lot of green. Photo: courtesy of the artists.

AF: It’s kind of a unique formula.

Childs: It’s a creative model. I’ve focused on doing a collaborative process, rather than a top down process where I’m the artistic director and you have to do it this way. I prefer to do it as a collective process.  Each person takes charge of a different medley. They have their own ideas and they invite the band to add new ideas. So everybody takes ownership of it.  That’s part of the excitement of it, to see it come to life.  Everybody admires each other’s talents, they feed off each other. That’s the power of music, to transport you to a different place.

AF: Tell me about the Kickstarter campaign you have for the new DVD.

Childs: We have a challenge grant to make the film. I wanted a film to capture the memory of this last performance. So I hired a grant writer and he went out and couldn’t get a grant. I approached some corporations to underwrite it, and I couldn’t get anyone to do that. I was about to give up and I called somebody I know on the West Coast who owns one of my instruments. I asked him if he’d help us out. He said, I’ll create a challenge grant of $100,000 if you guys generate $50,000 through crowdfunding. He knows our music. He said, your job is to get the community that loves Childsplay to support the rest of it. That gave me the courage to set the whole thing up, with the filmmakers. It will be a big deal. The Kickstarter campaign started on November 2. People can go online and pre-order a CD.

AF: Why end the tour in Cambridge?

Childs: I had my shop in Cambridge for 25 years so I feel a part of the Cambridge community. I always have. And so many band members are from around here. We just wanted to do it in Cambridge.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.

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1 Comment

  1. Bruce Burnham on November 21, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks to the author of this article, to Bob Childs, and all the musicians and staff that have made Childsplay possible. My wife Pam, my granddaughter Madison, and I were at the concert in Portland, ME on the 16th, and it was unforgettable. You/this will all be missed.

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