One of the neat things about science fiction and fantasy is that it's the only genre with its own soundtrack. Welcome to the world of filk.
If you’ve ever attended a science fiction convention, doubtless you've heard of filk, or, for better or worse, heard filk. Filk is folk music with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror theme, and is often performed at conventions.
How does one define filk? The borders vary from person to person, but one key factor is that a song must have lyrics to be considered filk. Otherwise, it's just instrumental music. It's the literary aspect that makes filk "filk."
For the most part, the subjects of filk songs tend to be related to science fiction and fantasy and the surrounding culture. Many songs, like "Drunken Wookie" are fun or satiric, but some, like "She's Mad in White Linen" can be dramatic or serious. Some songs expand the definition to include technology, the craft of writing, or even cats.
No one is quite sure when the practice of what we now call filk officially started in the early twentieth century. One of the early fan groups to folksing with science fiction themes was the Futurians (1937 -1945). Some of the earliest recorded filk songs come from this time, several of them listed in Damon Knight's memoir, "The Futurians." Later, writer Jack Speer is credited with writing and singing what would later become known as filk at the 1940 WorldCon.
The term "filk" is credited to Lee Jacobs. In his unpublished article for the Spectator Amateur Press Society in the 1950's, the title had a typo: "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music." Later, Karen Anderson deliberately used the term "filk" in Die Zeitschrift für Vollstandigen Unsinn (The Journal for Utter Nonsense) #774 (June 1953). Like many malapropisms and other mistaken slips of the tongue, the term was adopted and embraced by fandom.
Filk has evolved from its folk music roots. It borrows its forms from styles ranging from traditional ballads and folksy sounds to classical and modern rock. Songs may be original compositions or based on borrowed tunes. Sometimes, the words are borrowed, as well; for example, Lewis Carroll's classic poem "Jabberwocky" is sometimes sung at conventions to the tune of "Greensleeves." Many of the lyrics from Anne McCaffrey's novels have been put to music. Robert Jordan had music in mind when he wrote the lyrics to several songs in his "The Wheel of Time" series, notably the tavern song "Jak o' the Shadows." According to an interview of Jordan posted at TarValon.net, "'Jak o' the Shadows' should be sung to the Garryowen, which is the official march of the US 7th Cavalry."
Some of the best filk artists are composers of some skill, creating original music for original songs. Cat Faber of "Echo's Children" and Kathy Mar have each written award-winning original filk songs. Much of Cat Faber's and Kathy Mar's music features the stalwart instrument of filk, the guitar.
The guitar is the instrument of choice for filk music, partly from filk's folk music roots, but also because the guitar is an easily transportable and pleasant-sounding instrument capable of complex chordal structures, making it ideal for accompaniment at late-night convention filksings. But if no guitar or other instrument is available for accompaniment, filkers will happily sing a capella.
For the most part, filksinging takes place at conventions, usually late at night. Musical talent is not required, but it helps. Filkers tend to be patient with "neos" (newbies) and with those who may not have the pipes or the presence required for good singing.
There is a form of filk called "found filk." This term is applied to any song that fits the criteria of filk (a song with lyrics and a SFF theme) but was not originally written by a "filker." (In other words, a filk song was "found" on a mainstream album.) Many popular artists have recorded songs that qualify as "found filk," including "Major Tom" by David Bowie, "Ticket to the Moon" by Electric Light Orchestra, "Straight to my Heart" by Sting, "Rocket Man" by Elton John, and a double-handful of songs by Iron Maiden.
There is much debate over whether or not "Weird" Al Yankovic is a filker. Some of his music (for example, "Y.O.D.A.") qualifies as "found filk." Yankovic has neither confirmed nor denied this label; instead he describes himself as a "pop satirist."
As a subgenre, filk is often disregarded or relegated to the same status as fan fiction (clever, often well done, but pretty much amateur in status and sometimes one shade short of complete originality). It's a shame that it's not given more respect, for filk is a whole lot more than just making up satirical verses to existing tunes.
Filker Leslie Fish has composed hundreds of filk songs, including two of the most famous filk songs ever written: "Hope Eyrie," one of her favourites, and "Banned from Argo," one of her least favourites. "Banned from Argo" is so popular among filkers that it has inspired many spinoffs, one notable being Terence Chua's "Banned from Arkham."
Filker Michael Leibmann feels that filk has evolved beyond its folksy roots. "The filking community has spread its musical wings beyond simply folk and folk-style music. There has been at least one opera written in a filky style, along with sea chantys, multi-part choral pieces, rap music, rock music...the list goes on and on."
Leibmann shares how he discovered filk: "It just sorta happened. I've enjoyed singing for years, and happened upon it by accident. I didn't really know about filk as it is until 1980 or 1982 when I ran into it at a convention in Pasadena, CA. I just thought it was good music." To increase his musical skills, Leibmann taught himself guitar. He is, as he puts it, "one of filkdom's only true left-handed guitar players."
What impresses Leibmann about filk: "A good story, good lyrics. If it moves me. For instance, "The Road to Roswell" by Lloyd Landa and Karen Linsley. Since Lloyd died a few years ago, I've been totally unable to listen to the song without remembering him, and I start to cry." (email interview, May 2006)
Filk originated in the genre of science fiction and fantasy and for the most part, it stays there. Occasionally, it'll wander outside, when taken there by filkers with cross interests, and songs about Sherlock Holmes may be written, or songs about cats, or about pretty much anything else the fan is interested in. However, it is rare to find a filker who does not have some sort of direct tie back to the SFF fandom. (For some reason, fans of historic romance aren't inclined to write songs about Happily Ever After. They'd rather sigh after the hero than sing about him.)
Traditional folk music in many cultures (such as Albanian, Mexican, and American folk music) reflects a culture's sense of identity, its place in the world, and its values. The music belongs to the culture.
In the same way, filk belongs to the SFF community, and reflects the concerns and interests of the SF fan. But why bring music into the arena of science fiction and fantasy at all, when other genres, such as mystery, do not? Perhaps it resonates with the bardic tradition of Europe, a staple in the medieval fantasy tale. Perhaps it is because SFF in the 20th and 21st Centuries has been a forward-looking genre, and social movements in turn are often associated with folk song. In any case, SFF fandom becomes a culture for many of the fans and folk music—filk music—is a reflection of that culture. For them, science fiction and fantasy isn't just a category of books they get out of the library, or a couple of TV shows they watch, but it infiltrates their lives. Their friends belong to the same fan clubs, the "holy days" of their year may be the annual convention, their "traditional dress" could very well include a bat'letlh and the songs they sing, compose, and learn together are filk.
Geographically, filk tends to stay put within the fen communities where the local filkers have favorite songs they sing again and again. (The collection of these favorite songs is sometimes known as the local "hymnal.") Occasionally, a filker will attend an out-of-state con and share some of their original songs for a new audience. One reason the songs of Kathy Mar and Leslie Fish are widely known is because they travel and perform them for the local audiences. Because filk music is dependent on being performed and heard to increase its popularity, the geographic isolation of performances is a primary reason filk music tends to be localized. Filk, for the most part, doesn't receive wide exposure.
The Internet is changing this, through the widespread access of web pages, mp3s, and podcasts. There are several internet stations that broadcast filk, like FilkArchive Radio and Filk.com Radio. Several Usenet groups like rec.music.filk and alt.music.filk maintain filk archives, with the permissions of the composers and lyricist. CDs and sheet music are available for sale from sites such as Pegasus, Random Factors, and Firebird Arts and Music.
Each locality has its pet filk songs, remembered and revered in the same atmosphere as an inside jokes between friends. These songs have local appeal and even if they were to be shared beyond the local fen, would probably fail to catch on. For example, "The Brine Shrimp that Ate Salt Lake City" and "Cold Fusion" would have little or no meaning to someone outside of Utah. These "locals only" songs reflect the flavor of the local fen, including their political, social, or personal touches. This filk can say much about the fen community which spawned it.
Thanks to the ever-increasing availability of technology, filk is becoming more available. Many filk songs can be found online in midi and mp3 formats. The problem of poor or no accompaniment becomes a thing of the past with portable CD and mp3 players. Songs can be swapped and shared, performances recorded and remembered. Song sheets, "hymnals," CDs, web pages, and more ensure that the art of filk continues.
Leibmann feels technology benefits filk: "It's made more music samples and stuff available to more people. For instance, when I go to a convention as a filk dealer, not only do I bring a CD player and a boombox for people to listen, but I also have an MP3 player which has the contents of the store available, just in case someone wants to listen to something on another source (or if I forget my CD player)."
Naturally, there are lots of filk resources online.
Jane Mailander has written "Filk 101" to explain filk to those not yet in the know.
The Virtual Filksing claims to have "largest collection of recorded 'filk' music on the Internet."
Lee Gold has prepared an essay, "An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" and Filking," containing more history of filk than any sane person would want to know.
If you find yourself at a convention, and you hear strange music coming from somewhere, do not slink off, but stop for a listen. You might like what you hear.