Spelling mistake or art form?

(December 22, 2008)

There is something endearing in the fact that increasingly folk music has few restrictive boundaries but by contrast confusing that it has multiple classifications. Also it’s unfortunate that there is this compulsion to ‘define’ and that people get so hot and bothered by definition.

Much of the folk community is happy to include elements of rock, jazz, psych, trad, blues, country and virtually any other type of music under the broad folk umbrella. This broad church has a catholic outlook that enables the strangest forms of the genre to materialise.

One of these definitions came to me relatively early in my folk awareness but until now had slipped out of mind. A little while ago it raised its head once again. One of the good points about a site such as this is people ask me why I’m not covering such and such a style, so when I was asked about this particular subject I felt the need to go down the research road once again. 

Interestingly, it seems that I’ve opened what turns out to be a massive can of worms by questioning if we needed to perpetuate more definitions. That issue aside this time I’m talking about that purported historical spelling mistake – ‘filk music’.

So what is 'filk' music?

For the uninitiated I shall explain (lovers of filk can turn off for a few paragraphs). According to accepted wisdom, the term filk music started as a misspelling of folk music in an essay by some musical pundit. Apparently, the tradition among fans of filking is that this alleged typo became the self-identified term for a specific folk subculture – and all this while it was still an informal, mostly unrecognised activity. So begins the safari into the wilds of filk.

However, try as I might I can find no consensus on the definition of filk, though the most popular is: “filk is folk music, with a science fiction or fantasy theme”. (That’s fine so far as it goes but isn’t it folk music with something added or based on specific themes already in existence – see folk-rock, psych-folk etc, etc?) Apparently, filk was born among people who gather at science fiction/fantasy conferences and exhibitions and who decided for some reason, to spontaneously burst into song at late night get-togethers. (Sounds suspiciously like a well known source of folk music to me – i.e. people bursting into song at late night get togethers.)

In keeping with the folk-culture style of filk, its musical styles and topics are considered eclectic – in fact it appears that almost anything goes. While the genesis of filk is rooted firmly in acoustic-instrument folk music, artists draw inspiration from rock, a cappella vocals, jazz, blues, psyche, – you name it. (It is clear that this is a view of ‘eclecticism rules’ - so pretty much like folk music then. Perhaps it really is just a spelling mistake after all and not another definition.) It’s argued that the predominately amateur and itinerant nature of filk music gives some advantages to acoustic-vocal soloists and small groups, who need only carry a lightweight instrument or two and whose rehearsals are patchy or non-existent at best. (Hold on a minute isn’t that another generally accepted description of the early days of folk music?)

The range of topics covered by filk songs includes specific works in science fiction and fantasy, plus general songs about science, fantasy, computers and technology in general. (Big difference there then. Many of the folkies I know actively move away from topics such as computing and technology as fast as their little legs can carry them. Although, and it’s a guarded ‘although’ the advent of the 21st century seems to be changing some of that view.) I’ve also read that stylistically, filk music is described as folk music (what is this all about?). Singers usually accompany themselves on acoustic instruments, most often guitars. I’ve also read that apparently, filkers play everything from kazoos, harps and electric guitars to synthesizers. I've also heard that rock influences and flute solos go down well at filk gatherings. (This is all desperately familiar – are you sure it’s any different to folk music? And isn’t this yet another pointless definition for its own sake?)

Finding the right definition

While researching this article I did find a quote from one exponent of the filk genre: "Filk 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 and death." (Listen I hate to spoil the ‘definitions party’ going on here but apart from a fixation with science fiction and fantasy this is folk music – isn’t it?)

I was amazed to find that the 1950s saw the first formal publication of filksongs occasionally accompanied by original music. While many of those original filk songs have apparently faded into obscurity, some continued to be popular for decades. (Any filk fans want to examine the history of English folk – I think that you’ll find it’s pretty much the same.)

Today, the internet has nurtured the filk network much as it has with the folk network – although I’m hard pressed to find a filk band among the wealth of folk talent on the social networkin g sites so beloved by bands of all genres. I’m told the social network of electronic bulletin boards that does so much for internet interaction also does much for filk fans. It allows them to talk to each other and find the latest filk culture. (But ain’t that what MySpace and other such sites do for folk, rock, thrash, etc?) Occasional discussions over the boundaries of filk indicate the extent to which participants in filking are both aware of and keenly interested in the definition of filk. Allegedly filk newsgroups debate topics vehemently are clearly there are deep feelings involved.

In my search for filk information I discovered the following: “Within the filk community, the folk culture of filk acknowledges the legitimacy of music created by artists with a broad range of skills. Those who actively identify themselves as filkers include professional musicians, musical novices, and all ranges in between. The repeat appearances of professional filk musicians at filk-specific events suggests a certain amount of respect given high levels of musical skill within filking, even while the culture is open to less experienced musicians.” (Come on chaps let’s not be too coy surely this is folk music with another name.)

I’m also told that one clear difference from folk is the innumerable songs about fantasies such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Unfortunately, I’m told that these lyrical references can be obscure to anyone who is not an avid science fiction reader. (That may be. I’m not a fan so can’t comment. However, I know hundreds of folk songs where the lyrics turn obscurity from an art form into a science – so not much new there.) 

So does filk have an avid following, is it really just a spelling mistake? Should I have a section on filk in the book and on this site?

If you’re a filk fan help me out I’d love to know more.


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