What is Filk?
What is it?
This is the eternal question within the filk community. We point to an excellent article by Jordin Kare on filk which appeared in Sing Out!, The Folk Song Magazine, in 1995, and is appended to the IF pages with their permission. Jordin includes the viewpoint of filk as fannish expression, and gives excellent highlights of filk history.
No, that’s not a typographical error (although the word started as one, long ago). Filksongs and filksinging are the folk music of a time and a community, just as, say, Celtic ballads, or new England sea chanteys are — except the time is today (or tomorrow) and the community is science fiction and fantasy fandom.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Filksinging got it’s start in the 1950’s, when fans of SF (never say sci-fi) and fantasy began holding weekend get-togethers — conventions, or “cons” at rented hotels. Sometimes a few musically inclined fans would gather late at night in a corner of the lobby and trade folk songs, often making up mutant lyrics about space travel or elves or convention-going or what have you. And one fan, writing about this informal folk singing, slipped and typed “filksinging.” That was too good a word to waste, and ever since, when fans pull our guitars and gather late at night, what they do is filksinging, and what they sing is filk.
SO WHAT IS FILK?
To quote Nick Smith of the Los Angeles Filkharmonics, “It is a mixture of song parodies and original music, humorous and serious, about subjects like science fiction, fantasy, computers, cats, politics, the space program, books, movies, TV shows, love, war, death…” In other words, almost anything goes at a filksing. Folk songs are most welcome, and songs by Stan Rogers, Eric Bogle and Fred Small (to name just a few) are often sung.
Stylistically, filk is folk music. Singers usually accompany themselves on acoustic instruments, most often guitars, but filkers plan everything from kazoos to Celtic harps to electric guitars and synthesizers to a collapsible electric cello (proving, once again, there always room for cello!). I’ve heard (quiet) rock music, banjo picking, and flute solos at filksings, and all well-received.
The core of filk is original songs, and particularly original lyrics. Many original filksongs have some SF or fantasy element, but some are purely historical (like “Song of the Shieldwall,” subtitled “400 Years of English History in 2:15”), factual, just plain silly (“Overflowin’ Catbox Blues”), or… well, whatever. Parodies, whether of “mainstream” folk songs or other filksongs, are well-regarded; indeed, in some circles filking is synonymous with parodies. Filkers also share with SF fans in general a distinct fondness for puns. [See the reference to cello in the above paragraph.]
One difference from folk is that many filksongs are based on some shared fictional universe. There are innumerable songs about Star Trek, of course. Ditto Star Wars, and assorted other TV shows including, lately, The X-Files , (Firefly, Babylon 5, Dr. Who,and Heroes *). Some references can be obscure, however, to anyone who is not an avid SF reader: Dorsai songs, for instance, celebrate a planet of mercenary soldiers created by writer Gordon R. Dickson, while songs about bronze dragons and firelizards often refer to the works of Anne McCaffrey. (Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vor and Terry Pratchett’s Disc World series haves too many songs to count with more coming every day. *) British filkers have even created the Before the Dawn cycle — an entire fantasy world of interlocking songs. If you’re at a filksing and are baffled by a song, politely asking “What’s that based on?” is always welcomed, and may lead you to some really good reading.
Filkers are often, by tradition, extremely bad singers, and many filksongs parody filking itself. The traditional filkish key is Off, and a classic filk chorus starts, “So belt out whatever note suits you / The rest will join in, each one in his own key…”
Most filksings take one of two forms: Bardic Circle or Chaos.
In Bardic Circles, adopted in part from the Society for Creative Anachronism, each person in turn get to pick (request a song), pass, or perform. Circles give everyone a chance to be heard, but can be slow — circles at large conventions can take hours to go once around.
Chaos (or Midwestern style) is like a filk jam session: Jump in with a song whenever you want. Chaos sings can have tremendous energy, with people doing string of “followers” (on one memorable occasion, five songs in a row about defrosting refrigerators). But they sometime skip over newcomers and shyer folk, or succumb to the dreaded “filk hog” who insists on singing every other song. Variant styles include the oxymoronic Moderated Chaos , (Bucky Ball where a ball is tossed by the last singer to the next, and Poker Chip Bardics where tokens are passed out before each round, allowing someone with a follower or special request to “cash in” and take her turn at any time.
Common to all these styles, though, is that there is no division between “performer” and “audience.” You don’t need to be a trained musician (or even a very good one) to sing out and be appreciated; the emphasis is on creating your own songs. Well-crafted lyrics tend to garner the highest acclaim, although both fine melodies and skilled performances are also appreciated. Even folks who choose not to sing at all often contribute lyrics. But if you just want to listen, that’s fine too.
Most filkers are science fiction or fantasy fans who happen to like singing. Many have little or no formal musical background, and quite a few grew up being actively discouraged from singing. Filk gives them a place to be creative and to express their feelings about the things that are important too them — which is what folk music has always done, except that to filkers, what’s important in life are things like Schrodinger’s Cat and interstellar flight.
A number of filkers are immigrants from the folk music world, some of whom discovered filk after spending many yearswriting SF or fantasy songs that “just didn’t fit” in their usual gigs. Others are folkies who have been attracted by the openness and creativity of the filk community.
Some well-known SF authors like C.J. Cherryh, Joe Haldeman, Tanya Huff, and Robert Asprin are filkers. Gordon R. Dickson and Poul Anderson were known as filkers in years past. Issac Asimov wrote a few filks. Fantasy writer Mercedes Lackey and SF writers Julia Ecklar were both well-known as filkers before they sold their first stories.
Most filkers are solo performers, in part because filk is very much a spare-time activity and its practitioners are widely scattered. There are, though, a handful of filk groups that sing together regularly. Several groups have produced albums, some do local nonfilk gigs in the “mundane” world — no point letting all that practice to waste. There have even been impromptu filk choruses, assembled at a con, performing full choral arrangements of well-known filksongs like “Hope Eyrie” (about Apollo 11) and “The Green Hills of Earth.”
WHERE IS FILK?
Most filksinging still happens at science fiction conventions, of which there are several around the country (and around the world) on any given weekend. Cons range from local affairs with fewer than 100 people to Worldcon, the annual World Science Fiction Convention, which can attract 6,000 people or more. Most start Friday afternoon and end Sunday evening, but the larger cons have gravitated to holiday weekends and run three, four or even five days.
Traditionally, con filks started at midnight and ran ’til dawn or beyond — that was the only time filkers could find a place to sing from which they wouldn’t immediately be thrown out. These days, many conventions schedule hotel function rooms for filking, starting at 10 p.m. or so, and include filk concerts in their main programming. Filks tend to end well before dawn now — we’re all getting older and tireder — but expect to be up singing until the wee hours, especially on Saturday night.
Con memberships are usually $20 to $50; more for the larger cons. Just between you and me, you can sample an evening’s filking without buying a membership, but consider yourself honor-bound to get one if you stay more than briefly. Most SF cons are shoestring operations run entirely by volunteers. A membership will also let you go to the rest on the con: dealer’s room, art show, panels, workshops and more. (Don’t confuse SF cons with for-profit Star Trek , comics or gaming conventions, which are often professionally run and rarely have filking.)
Since the early 80’s, filkers have put on their very own cons. The largest is the Ohio Valley Filk Fest (OVFF), usually held the last weekend in October in Columbus, Ohio, which attracts around 200 filkers from all over the U.S. and Canada. Most filk cons are in the U.S., but there are annual Canadian and British ones as well. Newcomers are more than welcome at filk cons, although the intensity may take some getting used to — filkers form a tightly knit community, and there’s a lot of shared background to pick up.
There are also local filk organizations that hold periodic filk parties, usually at a member’s house. Newcomers are welcome at these too, but contact the host(s) in advance.
Until about 15 years ago, filksongs circulated mainly via word of mouth and portable cassette recorders. Then in 1980, two influential filk “hymnals” appeared, The Westerfilk Collection and the NEFSA (New England Science Fiction Association) Hymnal. Shortly thereafter, the first dedicated filk publisher, Off Centaur Publications, began publishing more songbooks and the first filk cassette tapes. Unfortunately, Off Centaur went out of business in 1987, and many early tapes and books are out of print.
Off Centaur did, however, spawn a small but lively filk publishing industry, and there are now several companies producing both live and studio recordings. There are upwards of 100 filk tapes and abut 10 filk CD’s in print, along with dozens of filk songbooks. There is one regularly published mimeographed filk magazine Xenofilkia which prints songs plus letters, con reviews and more. (The contact is Lee Gold, 3965 Alla Road, Los Angeles, CA 90066; $1 plus postage)
Filk is rarely available through regular music distributors, but can sometimes be found at bookstores specializing in SF and fantasy. But more and more music stores report getting requests for filk, so this may change. Filk has also turned up in other places, such as on the Dr. Demento radio show, and as “wake up music” for the shuttle astronauts, but has heretofore been heard only occasionally, even on the most eclectic radio stations.
GETTING INTO FILK
The best way is to go to the filks at a local convention. To find one, check with local specialty bookstores that carry SF. There are also short lists of upcoming cons in the backs of SF magazines like Analog and Issac Asimov’s . Or send a stamped envelope to Erwin S. Strauss (incidentally, a filker himself) at P.O. Box 3343, Fairfax, VA 22038 for a comprehensive list.
A good sampling of filk can be found in The Pegasus Winners, Vol. 1 (both tape and book), which is a collection of songs that won popular awards at the OVFF Convention. I can also recommend the CD Crosstown Bus and almost any tape from OVFF as good samples of convention filking. The songbook Stave the Wails, NEFSA Hymnal and the soon-to-be-reprinted Westerfilk Collection are good starting points for printed filk. All of these are available by mail from filk dealers. Finally, one of the best sources for filk and filk information is the Internet newsgroup alt.music.filk.
Welcome to filk!
This article, written by Jordin Kare in 1995 is used with the kind permission of Singout Magazine. Links added to reference Interfilk pages with corresponding information.
Jordin Kare has been actively involved in the science fiction community for more than 20 years. He co-founded Off Centaur Publications and was instrumental in the publication of “The Westerfilk Collection”. Jordin Kare is a physicist, rocket scientist, and aerospace engineer currently working as a consultant with the space industry for Kare Technical Consulting.