Filk is a genre of music associated with science fiction fandom, performed primarily in a folk style.
Participants and performance
The people who write and perform filk, called filkers or filksingers, are science fiction and fantasy fans. The majority have no formal musical training and cannot read music; new songs are acquired through memorization from a recording, or with the aid of printed lyrics and by memorizing the tune.
Filk is mostly performed at science fiction conventions, in two ways: concerts by individual performers and groups, and open sessions called filksings. The usual pattern is to hold concerts in the evening and filksings later in the night.
Filksings come in several varieties, the most common being bardic circle and chaos filk. In a bardic circle, every person in the room is given the opportunity in turn to pick, pass, or play-- that is, to pick a song to be performed, to just let the next person have their turn, or to perform something themselves. In a chaos filk, anyone may jump in with a song or request after the previous song has finished. Chaos filks are usually dominated by a small group of singers.
Since the 1980s, there have also been conventions devoted exclusively to filk, the largest of which is the Ohio Valley Filk Festival (OVFF), held every October. Filk has a yearly set of awards, called the Pegasus Awards, which are presented at OVFF.
Acoustic guitars are by far the most common instrument in filk; for that reason, most filk lyrics, whether commercially published or not, include the guitar chords. Autoharps and drums are the next most popular instruments at filksings. Commercially recorded filk uses a wider range of both modern and folk instruments.
Types of filksong
A filksong may have original words and music, or it may borrow a tune, or it may have lyrics from another source with music written by a filker. Many of Rudyard Kipling's poems have been set to music in the filk community; another favorite is Martha Keller.
Parody, in filk, refers specifically to a song using a tune from another song, with lyrics that resemble those of the original, for humorous effect. The parody can be referred to as "a filk of" the original song.
Ose is a term used for dark, depressing songs. The word is widely believed by filkers to be a shortening of morose, first used in the construction "ose and morose".
An instafilk is a song written on the spot at a filksing and performed immediately.
Origins of filk
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where filk begins. Musical activity is attested to practically back to the beginning of organized science fiction fandom. By the time the word "filk" was coined, from a typo in the title of a 1953 essay on alleged science-fictional incidents in folksongs, there was a recognized activity to which it could be applied.
Filk defined as parody
The definition of filk as restricted to parody songs was popularized by the Jargon File and its published equivalent, The Hacker's Dictionary (first edition 1983). By the time of publication, the definition was certainly wrong; there was already a filk publishing industry dominated by original songs.
However, earlier forms of this definition pop up in fannish sources much further back. Due to the custom of learning songs by ear, the circulation of original tunes was definitely severely hampered in the pre-cassette era, but, at the same time, there are scattered references to what seem to be fully original songs.
The question of whether this definition was ever fully appropriate is a point of much contention among filkers, and it may never be resolved.
- Gold, Lee. (1997) An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" And Filking. Originally published in the Conchord 12 songbook.