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What is Filk101?

Jan Mailander wrote filking 101 as in introduction to filking for new people. It is several years old but still contains good information as an introduction. Some more current filkers are not mention and for this we at apologize for but we have just not had time to rewrite the document to keep it up to date.

The Folk Music of Science Fiction

written by Jane Mailander in conjunction with Los Angeles Filkers Anonymous With added comments, corrections, etc. by Rick Weiss, Deborah Leonard, Mary Creasey , Quentin Long and Eric Gerds
Author's Note: C natural.

P. S.Since a majority of filkers are female, all pronouns will be feminine. So there. - J.M.

Publisher's note: We realize that this is not a complete guide and readers may not agree with some of the opinions expressed here. However, the need for something in print is clear. Just ask any newcomer at a filksing. We hope readers will bear with us and be polite when they feel our information is wrong. - Eric Gerds

P. S.- Publisher's Note: Anyone who wants to help rewrite filk101 please feel free to contact us. -- Eric Gerds


.............St. Thomas Aquinas

.............. Jane Mailander

Welcome to the subgenre of science fiction and fantasy fandom known as filk. So what is Filk? You wish to know? That's a very good question. Filk will be explained however coming up with a true definition of what filk is may not be possible, as you will see as you read this document. So set back and enjoy one of the stranger forms of music on this planet.

The word filk was coined many years ago. There are many Legends about where the word comes from, however, its name can be traced to a gentleman by the name of Lee Jacobs. He was writing an article for SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Society) back in the 1950's. The article was entitled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music". He had made a mistake and typo the "I" instead of the letter "O" in the word FOLK. The article was never published, for other reasons, however Lee Jacobs showed the article and told all his friends about it. Why the typo caught on is not clear but the term soon enter into Science Fiction Fan's vocabulary and has continued to stick to this day.

Many things fall under the category of filk, filking, and filksongs. Perhaps you've heard Weird Al Yankovic's song Yoda, where he took the tune from The Kinks' Lola and wrote a song about a STAR WARS character. Yoda is classified as a filk song a tune from a known song, with original words that have a science fiction or fantasy theme even though Lola is not a folk song. (Most of Weird Al's music is more mainstream- -if you can call Eat It mainstream so Weird Al himself is not classified as a filk singer.)

A song specifically written with a science fiction theme, with original music as well as lyrics, also falls under the category of filk music. Star Trekkin' by the Firm the best-known original STAR TREK song, is in that category, as are David Bowie's and Peter Schilling's ballads about Major Tom. Elton John's Rocket Man is perhaps the most popular science fiction song of all time based upon a Ray Bradbury story, yet! Despite what William Shatner did to it (don't ask, you'll sleep better at night).

Songs about real happenings in space songs to honor astronauts and missions, or the space program also count. The Byrds had a song called Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, and Casse Culver honored another astronaut with Ride, Sally Ride. These are filk songs in the truest sense of FOLK, that honor modern laborers like astronauts in lieu of the farmers and miners of yesterday's folk songs.

Instrumental pieces do not fall into the category of filk; filk music contains both music and lyrics. Holst's THE PLANETS, Mozart's JUPITER SYMPHONY, and John Williams' numerous scores for blockbuster science fiction movies do not, therefore, count as filk music. Drug songs are NOT filk songs. The Moody Blues' Floating, the Byrds' Eight Miles High, and Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit are full of space or fantasy references, but these are references for people who need to take drugs to experience space flightor flights of fancy. The rest of us read science fiction.

Many successful mainstream artists have written filk songs. Allan Sherman, Donovan, Neil Innes, Frank Zappa, Chris de Burgh, Justin Hayward, Julie Brown, Sting, Billy Preston, Jethro Tull, and (appropriately enough) Jefferson Starship, among others, have done at least one space-themed or outright science fiction or fantasy song. But you will not hear Billy Preston or Donovan referred to as a filker, for the same reason Weird Al Yankovic is not called a filker. One space song doth not a filksinger make.

Many filk fans are of the jaundiced opinion that the space and fantasy songs coined by the artists mentioned above don't count because a) the above artists are not s-f fans, and b) they (horrors) MAKE MONEY! Filk, they scornfully declare, is for the amateur fan alone. This must mean that they NEVER buy filk tapes or filk songbooks, and they have NEVER heard Yoda or Major Tom sung at a filksing.

You may also hear the term "Found Filk" for these kinds of songs. In the sense of "I found a filk song on a main stream album." Generally speaking most people view these types of songs as crossover songs, just as country-western song can also be considered a pop song, some mainstream songs can be also considered a filk song.

Traditionally a filksinger is someone who comes from the Science Fiction Fannish community. They have also tended to be amateur performers and songwriters because they do this once in a while and they don't do it to make any kind of money, they do it because it is fun. There are exceptions to this where a handful of Filksingers are professional musicians and some professional musicians have hung out with us filkers not knowing what the Science Fiction Fannish community is. But generally speaking most filksingers just attend the late- night filk singing circles at conventions (often these events are not even mentioned in the program book, but one learns where to go). Eventually, they may wind up attending monthly filk house sings (See Chapter 3, What is a House Filk) or even a filk convention where people do nothing but sing and listen to singers.

In recent years some fans have gotten very good at performing. This performer is a new hybrid of filksingers who is a semi-professional where they are good enough that they a have been recorded and their material has been put onto CDs. We call them semi-professional not because of their quality but because they are not trying to make a living from performing and recording, they are mainly doing for the fun of it. These performers CDs are not sold in stores and have almost no distribution. They are sold at conventions, the Internet and occasionally get airplay on Dr. Demento or other small radio shows.

In an even broader definition, filk music can refer to specific genre songs for various fandoms. Sherlock Holmes fans have their own homemade songs about Conan Doyle's detective, and these are Holmes filks. Other people are aficionados of the Society for Creative Anachronism, FRP gaming, Regency dancing and so forth; these too have their own filk songs. Some of these, in fact, may crossover' to SF filking, especially SCA and FRP songs. In general, though, when someone says filk, she means s.f./fantasy songs.

Filk songs have stayed close to their folk songs origin. Filk music tends to have a folky sound; the preferred instrument remains the acoustic guitar. Electric instruments, synthesizers and the like are represented, but to a lesser degree than plain woodwinds, percussion and strings. It will be some time before filk music shows up on MTV. The music remains a blend of new-words-to-a-familiar-tune and completely original songs.

This is a major theological debate in the s.f. community regarding filking: Must You Be A Science Fiction Fan Before You Can Enjoy Filk Music?

The answer is NO just as none of the mainstream music artists mentioned above had to become science fiction fans or attend conventions before writing their space songs. Non-fans may not like science fiction or all aspects of filk music, but they will pick up on what interests them they are often tickled that a song has been written about one of their interests. Girls who collect stuffed unicorns would enjoy the many unicorn songs that have been written; people who don't like STAR TREK get a kick out of the less-than-reverential treatment of the show in such ditties as Security Strike; people who love and are loved weep when they hear Kathy Mar sing her song Velveteen. I personally have seen Air Force officers get teary at hearing a ballad about the CHALLENGER.

But there is a more important question to answer. You may be thinking: Science Fiction is very popular now. If there are so many blockbuster s.f. films out there, and hit fantasy movies like THE PRINCESS BRIDE, why don't we hear more filk music on the alternative radio stations? Stations that play folk music, experimental or new-age music would seem to be the perfect place for such songs. One of the reasons is that filk music suffers from the same trait as every other little group: Insider-itis. Filk fandom has its own set of lingo, inside jokes and secret messages, and these show up very often in the songs. The phrase They'd stolen our Tully! from The Thieves of the Kif gets roars of laughter from filk fans and a blank stare from non-filk-fans. (See Appendix A, TULLY, for the explanation.) Songs written about obscure novels and fannish variations on an established work, as well, are too INSIDE to gain popular appreciation. And, to be blunt about it, most filk songs aren't good enough for air play. The songs are written by fans, not professional song writers.

Many people have difficulty making their songs rhyme and scan. Many songs are written by people that, though talented, do not know when to end a song; they think a 40-stanza song will hold people's attention as well as a 3-stanza song. Filksong writing is fun to do, but not all the songs are good enough to wind up on tape. But now, making recordings is cheaper and easier than ever. More and more small companies are being created for the sole purpose of selling filk tapes. They have begun to send samples to such radio shows as Dr. Demento that give air play to alternative music, and filk fans are learning how to market themselves better. As the songs get greater airplay and show up on the Internet, the audience grows, and filk may yet have a renaissance.

Continue on to Part 2:
What Goes On at a Filksing

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