Childsplay: Echoes of three decades of memorable music

November marks the finale of Childsplay, which will say goodby with a mini-tour of New England and New York culminating in two shows]on Nov. 24 at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. (2012 file photo)

By Sean Smith
Special to the BIR

Understand, it’s not as if Bob Childs wants Childsplay to end. For more than three decades, the Boston-based all-star fiddle ensemble for which Childs serves as artistic director as well as namesake has gathered almost every fall to present a series of concerts featuring music from Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, American, Scandinavian, and other folk traditions. The band’s name derives from the fact that its fiddlers, all skillful musicians in their own right, play violins and violas created by Childs, who also takes part in the performances. Childsplay has released seven albums and two films, one of which was shown widely on PBS.
But this month marks the finale of Childsplay, which will say goodby with a mini-tour of New England and New York culminating in two shows (3 p.m. and 8 p.m.) on Nov. 24 at Sanders Theater in Cambridge.
Economics is the most immediate reason for Childsplay’s farewell, according to Childs: “The touring costs and logistics associated with taking a large group on the road have simply become too great.” But he also points to what he calls “a changed landscape” for folk and acoustic music in an era of proliferating entertainment choices and increasingly segmented media.
“We hear how CDs are in decline, and there just doesn’t seem to be as much folk, acoustic, and traditional music on the radio anymore. It’s become more challenging for performers to get the wider exposure they need to build an audience. So the calculus of what’s necessary for a viable band tour has reached a point where the numbers just don’t work.”
Childs, however, is not going into this last Childsplay tour with bitterness. He prefers instead to let these final shows be “about honoring the talent and commitment of the band,” and to focus on the fellowship and, most of all, the memorable music its members have created.
This year’s edition of Childsplay includes fiddlers and violinists with Greater Boston-area ties like Laurel Martin, Hanneke Cassel, Katie McNally, Sheila Falls, Amanda Cavanaugh, and Bonnie Bewick. As in past years, they are supplemented by a bevy of musicians on other instruments, among them Shannon Heaton (flute, whistle, accordion), Kathleen Guilday (Irish harp), Keith Murphy (guitar, piano), McKinley James (cello), Ralph Gordon (double bass), and Mark Roberts (banjo, bouzouki, percussion).
Renowned Irish singer Karan Casey, who joined Childsplay in 2016 and appeared on its most recent CD, “The Bloom of Youth,” will serve again as lead vocalist. Also returning is Kevin Doyle, long an audience favorite for his robust, spirited blending of Irish and American dance styles. Irish dancer Maureen Berry, whose credits include “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” is another of the special guests this year. And Childs hints that there are likely to be some “surprise visitors,” including past Childsplay members, showing up on stage, especially at the last show.
Childsplay first began its near-annual assembly in 1986, when several of Childs’s satisfied fiddle customers played a concert in Washington, DC; they invited him to join them the following year. The group’s tours have not always been confined to the Northeast: In addition to Washington, DC, they’ve performed in the Pacific Northwest and one year traveled to a festival in Sweden.
Wherever they may play, and whoever shows up to participate – the lineup has seldom been the same from one year to the next – Childsplay’s devotion to high-quality music is a certainty. Rather than employ a straight wall-of-sound approach for its sets, the ensemble will in some instances spotlight a few players at a time – maybe a fiddle and flute duet, for example, or a trio of fiddles by itself or with guitar, or piano – and the arrangements might include counterpoint or contrasting rhythms juxtaposed against one another. Their repertoire of tunes spans traditional as well as contemporary compositions, some of them by band members like Cassel, Murphy, Heaton, and McNally.
Childsplay’s vocal numbers, whether sung by Casey or her predecessors Aoife O’Donovan and Lissa Schneckenburger (who has done double duty as a fiddler as well), have been equally well-crafted and diverse. From traditional Irish or Scottish songs like “Sailing Off to Yankeeland” and “Rattling Roaring Willie” to Americana like “Dear Companion” and “Sweet Sunny South,” to contemporary material including Casey’s own “Dear Annie” and Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” – and even a cover of “Love Me Tender” – Childsplay has been adept at creating arrangements and accompaniment that capably support the singer.
The archetypal Childsplay moment is when all its components “are in synch with one another,” says Childs: The fiddles swell together, or gallop through a jig or reel in unison, with the other instruments closely aligned. “Every year, there are a couple of those moments,” he says, “and they’re so beautiful it’s hard not to get emotional.”
Childsplay has inspired many such emotions for its members over the years: the anticipation of putting forth or trying out ideas for new additions to the band repertoire; the delight in catching up with people you may not have seen since the last Childsplay tour; the exhilaration at putting in all that work and then sharing it with an enthusiastic audience. “Community” is an obvious and frequently heard description for the group, but it’s entirely apt.
“It’s been wonderful to have an annual occasion to collaborate with friends I see frequently,” says Heaton, “and a few I only see during the Childsplay events.”
Cassel, another long-time and frequent Childsplayer, likens the experience to a fiddle camp: “deep conversations, cooking together, jamming.”
McNally was still in her teens when she first took part in Childsplay, following in the footsteps of younger musicians like Sam Amidon, Graham DeZarn and the Gawler sisters, Elsie, Edith, and Molly, all of whom she’d marveled at as a child watching Childsplay shows from the audience.
“It was one of my first big professional gigs – I joined the band right after I got my fiddle from Bob,” she recalls. “It was so exciting when Bob called me up and casually asked if it would help me pay off my new instrument by going on tour with the band.”
Not surprisingly, Childsplay performers’ memories incorporate not just the rehearsals and concerts, but ancillary and even unusual events or circumstances. For Heaton, there was the year a nasty “catchy bug” made the rounds, creating a “literally infectious camaraderie between musicians, dancers, and the tech crew. Almost no one was spared.” But the show went on.
McNally likes to remember a post-concert excursion in New London, Conn., to a dive bar near the hotel where Childsplay was staying. A 1980s cover band was playing and, somehow, she says, “we eventually had all of the other patrons at the bar doing ‘The Virginia Reel’ to their music.”
Cassel, underlining the fiddle camp vibe of Childsplay, recounts an end-of-tour party that wound up taking place at the family home of one performer – despite the fact that her parents weren’t there. “So we went to the store, bought a bunch of groceries, and then chopped, cooked, grilled together and stayed up into the wee hours eating and playing music.”
When Childs adds those memories and impressions to his own, it serves to affirm his pride and satisfaction in what Childsplay has achieved in its three-plus decades.
“One of my favorite parts of Childsplay has been its intergenerational nature; we have always had a spectrum of ages, from teen to young adult to middle age and older. To see the mentoring that’s taken place, to witness how people have grown – not just musically but personally – is something I’ve always been thankful for.
“Although I’ve had a leadership position in the band, I’ve never tried to be directive, but to let the music emerge and allow people to step forward and take on roles they’ve set for themselves.”
Childs has already had one important life transition recently, having largely retired from his violin-making after some 40 years due to eye problems. Childsplay’s finale – which will be filmed for another documentary – will be another.
“Endings in and of themselves are often difficult. But this is the opportunity to pay tribute to what Childsplay has accomplished. Karan Casey has called Childsplay ‘a democracy,’ and I appreciate that; it shows we’ve built a super-creative environment in which it’s possible to make wonderful things.”
For more about Childsplay and its final concerts, including the two at Sanders Theater, go to