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hat IS Filk

a completely biased viewpoint
from Dave and Judith

This is no claim to a definitive description. It's our opinions. Unlike the other areas where we're involved (like conventions and organizations), this web site is the place we can say what we refrain from saying there.

Filk music -- for us -- really is science fiction folk music. Now that begs a question, right?
Like: What is folk music? There have been just as many holy wars of words about that as about what filk is. But I found a really simple article in Encarta that had some fairly good points to make:

Folk Music is: "music that is transmitted orally... [and] composed by individuals who remain anonymous or, at any rate, are not remembered by name..[traditionally]." It's performance is generally by people who are not highly trained musicians and "folk music is often thought to be closely associated with such life activities as ritual, work, and child-rearing... "of largely rural, untutored masses." The so-called opposite form is classical or art music, for whom composers are usually known and the performers are often highly trained, for the "educated, economic, political, as well as musical, elite" and often based in cities.

Well, that's not very useful, but it does give some background. The article goes on:

"Folk music may also be defined as the music with which an ethnic community most closely identifies itself."

"The boundaries between folk and other kinds of music are not clear. Songs from the realm of classical music are sometimes adopted by the folk community. Popular music, developed in urban cultures and transmitted through the mass media, bears some of the characteristics of folk music... Printing and the mass media have given them access to urban culture... Thus, many phenomena once on the border of folk music have taken on greater importance... Dissenting political and social movements of the left and the right have made a practice of writing and performing songs in folk style with words supporting their causes... Popular music makes use of folk styles, and mixed styles such as country and western music, folk-rock, soul, and gospel music have emerged... The character of folk music has changed greatly since World War II, and the lines separating it from other kinds of music have become blurred."

Now folks may agree or disagree with that but we think it makes some pretty relevant points for filk:

  • the connection to community, especially if you remove "ethnic" and make it "a community"
  • the idea that lyrics may be written in a folk style for specific purposes
  • the idea of the blurring of lines between folk style and all the styles of music.
Well, where does that leave us? We decline to adhere to the "filk is what a filker sings at a filk circle" kind of definition. To the best of my knowledge there is little in music that is not acceptable at a filk circle. Tolerably well-performed might be preferable if the form is unfamiliar. Melodically and lyrically pleasing is also easier to take.

Surely there are some defining elements of filk. So, what separates welcome non-filk (like Stan Rogers) from what is unequivocally filk? We'd suggest that it isn't musical style, but lyrical content.

Joe Ellis wrote some pretty good comments along this line: "The defining element of filk is content, and nothing more or less. Anything that anyone can point to and develop a reasonable consensus that it is 'filk' will invariably have a science, sf, or fantasy content." He expanded at greater length on his web site.

He also makes an argument for instrumental filk -- a pretty good one at that -- but we ourselves are talking about songs.

Over the last dozen years, we haven't just enjoyed filk music, we've watched what other people enjoy. We've looked for songs that endure, music that gets pulled out by everyone, themes that draw people to attend, songs that hold their attention; eg. songs that the community identifies with. Our conclusion is that -- mostly -- Joe's definition is right: most of those categories are filled by songs with a science, sf, or fantasy content. Not always, but usually.

There are plenty of songs that also ring true: these are the not-filk songs that have some emotional resonance with the filk community. A classic example might be "Northwest Passage".

What about examples?

Let's mention not-filk that is very well-performed. Groups like Black Book Band, Urban Tapestry, Ookla the Mok, Dandelion Wine and Puzzlebox and individuals like Mary Ellen Wessels, Heather Alexander and Michael Longcor all perform very, very well. But many or most of their songs aren't even remotely what we would call filk, though they are very acceptable in the filk community.

As a couple who both perform and listen, we are bemused. That's largely because we got into filk to hear filk and it seems that most of what's out there now consists of very well performed songs that are not, or are barely filk. A filk sing with only filk would be boring. But a filk sing with NO filk in the way defined above, is nothing but another music festival. But, it seems to us, that's the way it's going.

The other bemusing aspect about filk is that it seems to be losing the audience involvement. We ourselves can be very vocal about other people's performances -- when it comes to putting things out for sale on tapes, expecting concerts, etc. But it seems that filkers are increasingly expecting "art" level performances from everyone. Why? Where is this coming from? Snobbism seems to be invading the community. Some of it is coming from some of the excellent performers, who are clear that they only want to play with other excellent performers. Or who say "to hell with filk, let's play real music". Some is coming from listeners who only want to listen to the top folks. All of this is a denial of what filk has been about.

For us, filk is first and foremost a caring and accepting community of people who happen to enjoy both music and SF/fantasy/space/science themes. It is a community full of potential friends, with this pair of common interests. It is a community where nurturing is part of breathing, whether it's nurturing the novice performer, the songwriter, or the new and uncertain person. It's a gold mine of mutual support. And the whole is interwoven with music of all kinds, but mostly one particular kind. Our deep love of the community lead directly to the creation of the Filk Hall of Fame (with the cooperation of FKO). If the filk community is evolving into just another group of jammers, then it's time for us to leave.

That would be a very great shame. The filk community is one of our favourite "homes". Yet we feel that that filk is a lost child who is still most welcome in the hearts (and ears) of SF fans, on the rare occasions that they get to hear it. So, it was with great optimism that we greeted the speeches of Barry and Sally Childs-Helton in 2003 as they accepted their induction into the Filk Hall of Fame. The importance of being a participant, not simply a spectator is inherant in what they say. Have a look.


There are many other sites that also address the issue. We (Dave and I) agree with some and not with others. However, for an excellent short history of the beginning of filk music, Lee Gold wrote An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" And Filking It's an excellent piece full of interesting details. The Dandelion Report also makes a stab at explaining filk and some of it's background. So does Interfilk which includes a "what is filk?" page with multiple links.

2004, Judith Hayman