TT: Filking Away the Hours

JANE: Well, Alan, a few weeks ago, before the holidays sent us Tangenting off in other directions, we promised we would discuss filk music.  Since I had never heard of filk before Roger Zelazny introduced me to it as part of his cheerful campaign to introduce me to SF/F fandom (something I knew little or nothing about – that’s another story entirely), I think I’d like to offer a definition for those of our readers who may be similarly ignorant.

Filk Collections

Filk Collections

ALAN: Definitions are good. Tell me what yours is.

JANE: Filk music is, more or less, folk music with SF/F themes.

I read that the word “filk” originated as a typo in a convention program where a folk music sing-along was part of the late night programming.  The word stuck, since it gave a name to the somewhat different playlist.

ALAN: Not bad – though I’d quibble slightly about restricting it to folk music derivations. These days pretty much any song or musical style seems to be grist to the filking mill.

JANE:  I’ll take your word for it.  I haven’t ever attended a filking session.  Most of my experience has been with recordings.

Sometimes filk is very good.  Sometimes, well…  I don’t have the source anymore, but years ago I read a comment credited to author Marion Zimmer Bradley about filk: “Filk is like sex.  It should be performed by consenting adults in rooms with closed doors.”

ALAN: I agree with her!

JANE: Whatever the case, like sex, filk remains very popular.  Most U.S. conventions have a filk track.  Some even have filk Guests of Honor, along with Author, Artist, and Fan Guests of Honor.

Is filk popular in England?  How about in Australia and New Zealand?

ALAN: Yes – it’s very popular and most conventions have both formal and informal filking sessions. I tend to avoid them, but that’s just me.

JANE:  Why do you avoid them?

ALAN: We have at least two extremely talented filkers here in NZ. Unfortunately we have about 200 extremely untalented ones, so I find most filk sessions quite painful.

JANE: Untalented?

ALAN: Far too many of them seem to have no metrical sense. They can’t count syllables, and they don’t know how to stress the words properly. They do understand rhyme (it’s almost impossible not to understand rhyme), but all too often that just means that their songs are full of place holders – lines whose only purpose is to provide a rhyme, but which add nothing to the sense of the piece. So the whole thing just makes me cringe with embarrassment.

JANE: You did say you have some talented filkers, so things can’t be all bad.

ALAN: Oh indeed. When Star Trek: The Next Generation first appeared on our TV screens, a lot of people hated the character Wes Crusher. One of our filkers wrote a brilliant song called “50 Ways To Kill Wes Crusher.” Obviously it was sung to the Paul Simon tune “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” It was both clever and very funny.

Several years after I first heard the song, I was running a course at a client’s site. I arrived to set up the computers that we’d need but I was told I couldn’t set up yet because the social club was having a lunch time meeting and they were using the room. Fair enough. I went and grabbed a coffee.

Eventually the social club meeting finished and I went into the room to start doing my stuff. I was pleased to see that the social club had obviously been having a sing-song. They’d left some song sheets behind. They’d been singing “50 Ways To Kill Wes Crusher”…

JANE: And so the virus spreads…

Roger loved folk music, so he was interested in filk, since it combined two of his loves: SF/F and folk.  At one point, he sent me a bunch of cassette tapes that produced by something called “Bayfilk.”  They contained a wide selection of pieces – some of which seemed more or less straight “folk” to me, others of which were clearly SF/F inspired.

My impression – and I’d love if our readers would step in and clarify for me, since I’m not familiar enough with folk music to be sure – is that many U.S. SF/F filk pieces were/are original compositions, rather than relying on someone else’s music.

ALAN: I can’t comment about U.S. filking because I have no experience of it, but here we tend more towards setting new words to well-known tunes. That can be pleasing on two levels, of course. There’s the sense of parody of a familiar piece, combined with the cleverness of the SF/F references. What were the filking pieces that you enjoyed?

JANE: I particularly liked many of the pieces by a woman named Leslie Fish.  They were clever and intelligent.  She did one based around C.J. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur that included a rough growly element and remained faithful enough to the novel that I wouldn’t be surprised if people hearing the song then went to read the book.  I also liked her survivalist “Blue Bread Mold” and another…  I think it was called “Black Powder and Alcohol.”

ALAN: Even the titles make me smile!

JANE: SF writer Joe Haldeman has also committed filk.  His “SF Editor’s Lament” should be required listening on the part of any newbee writer, since he touches on most of the overused tropes.

I once had a friend pull me aside and, literally, whisper in my ear, his idea for a brilliant, new horror novel: “Vampires with AIDS.”  I had to choke back an inappropriate laugh, because this is one of the lines in Joe’s song.

ALAN: Joe is a talented musician and he has a wicked sense of humour. Put those together and it’s a recipe for a fun evening. By the way – L. Sprague de Camp once wrote an essay in which he discussed stories that he never got round to writing. One of them concerned a vampire with a sweet tooth who only dined on the blood of diabetics…

JANE: I like that!  I wonder if someone else took up the challenge.

Funny thing about “SF Editor’s Lament.”   I heard it originally on the Bayfilk “Limelight” tape.  In it, Joe sounds as if he’s fumbling a line but when, years later, I heard him sing it live, he “fumbled” in exactly the same place, so I guess it was intentional.

ALAN: I’m sure he had his own subtle Haldemaniacal reasons for it.

JANE: Me, too!  I’ve toyed with the idea that he fumbled on the recording and then, to make it seem deliberate, decided to fumble every time after, but I’ve never had the courage to ask.

Filk is a topic that many of those who attend SF/F conventions have strong opinions about.  I hope we’ll hear some – and not only about the bad, but about the good and the funny as well!


7 Responses to “TT: Filking Away the Hours”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Hearing original stuff by Leslie Fish got me intereted in filk. One of the best (which actually inspired an anthology of the same name) can be heard here:

  2. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Funny, I don’t know why, but I’ve gotten more “off-line” comments on this one than any other in a long while.

    I do love CARMEN MIRANDA’S GHOST. I hope some of you will take advantage of the link above.

  3. Lee Gold Says:

    SF fans have been writing songs (sometimes parodies, sometimes to original music) since at least the 1940s, but they didn’t start calling them “filksongs” until the early 1950s. That was when Lee Jacobs mistyped “folk” as “filk” in a fanzine article on folk music. Karen Kruse (later Karen Anderson) liked the word and used it to describe the long-standing fannish phenomenon in an article for “The Zed #780,” her SAPSzine (December 1955), and the use caught on. See (Lee Gold)

  4. Cat Faber Says:

    Filks where the tune is also new are quite common in US filking. Not to the point of eliminating parodies (where the new words comment on the old in some way) or “retreads” (my own term for songs where the new words are unrelated to the old) but I think more common than either.

    If you’re looking for lovely filk, some examples might be Ship Of Stone

    Spiral Dance

    And some people like this one (by me) Word Of God

  5. Mary Creasey Says:

    FYI–Bayfilk was a former West Coast (SF Bay area) filker’s convention; there were 5 of them, and all of them produced tapes. Nowadays there are several USA filkcons, one Canadian, one British, and two German. Some produce recordings, or have done so; most do not.

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