A circle of chairs lines the interior of an empty convention hall. Slowly, the hall begins to fill with people, many of them with instruments in tow. Guitars, drums, keyboards… a few people even have iPads already preloaded with their favorite instrument emulators. They each take a seat, and look around the room at their peers. A guitar begins to play, and a voice begins to sing, “When we pulled into Argo Port in need of R&R…”
What Filk Is
“Filk is a form of music created from within science fiction and fantasy fandom, often performed late at night at science fiction conventions.”1 However, if you ask a filker, it’s much more than that. It is people who are passionate about science fiction and fantasy sharing their enthusiasm through music.
The word “filk” comes from a typographical error, as many of our geek words do, like “pwn” or “teh”. Lee Jacobs was writing an article in the 1950s titled “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music”. Since typewriters didn’t have spellcheck, the typo was submitted to a publication. It wasn’t published (one might wonder how many other unnoticed typos were in that article, considering that the title wasn’t even checked), but somehow the word ended up sticking in the nerd vocabulary.2
Filk music first began during the first science fiction conventions in the 1920s. Although it didn’t get its name until the 1950s, it was still a bunch of science fiction fans getting together to sing songs, much as it is today. However, these were informal meetings, and usually weren’t connected to the convention itself. As the decades passed, filk circles started to be integrated into convention programming. The first filk-focused conventions began with FilkCon in Chicago in 1979, and many more cropped up in the following decades.3
The art of filk has grown into a large community of supporters. With the low price of home recording and Youtube, filk has grown into having a huge underground online presence, along with continuing to be popular at various conventions around the world. Most of the organized filk circles are found at smaller, local or regional conventions. Large media conventions are less likely to have organized filksings, but sometimes you can find an impromptu circle in a hotel lobby or room.4
Some of the biggest filk conventions include the Ohio Valley Filk Fest, FilKONtario, GAFilk, and Conflikt.5 The Pegasus Awards are given out at the Ohio Valley Filk Fest and honor worldwide excellence in filking.
The Filk Circle and Filk Etiquette
When filking, everyone sits in a circle facing each other with their instruments. Depending of the style of the filksing, people take turns by going around the room, or a designated official picks people to participate. In the loosest form, singers jump in when they feel that they have a good song to share.
When one person is singing, other musicians will jump in to provide accompaniment, but it’s a general rule that the focus must always be on the original performer. Taking over someone’s song in a filk circle is a big no-no.6
Newcomers are always welcome as long as they are respectful to the performers and don’t ask for “Banned From Argo”.7
Why Filking is Important
Before you belittle filk music, think of it this way: John Denver sang folk songs about mountains, and he’s considered a national treasure. The Death Star is way cooler than mountains. Fact.
While filk music isn’t always the best music ever written or performed, it’s also an important part of fandom. It’s a creative release much in the same way as fanfic or fanart. It’s a way for fans to share their interests with each other. Filk can also help spread different forms of fandom amongst convention attendees. Hearing an intriguing song about a show or book can convince others to give it a try.
Filk music is performed by amateur and professional musicians, and everyone in between. The community, based on mutual respect between performers, is vibrant and growing. It’s worth a try, even if it’s only to relax a bit after a long day at a sci-fi con.
If you’re still hesitant to jump right into a filk circle, check out some more mainstream “filk-flavored” artists such as Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Warp 11, Jonathon Coulton, Abney Park, or the genre of nerdcore.
Some Awesome Filk Videos…
While filk is usually performed in a circle, in can be performed in concert as well, as in this video.
While Voltaire may or may not be considered a filker, depending on who you ask, his songs based on Star Trek and horror themes are some of the best.
…And a Not-So-Awesome One
For some reason, Leonard Nimoy thought it would be fun to sing this song. At least he didn’t write it.
7 “Banned From Argo” is one of the most famous filk songs, and is usually asked for by newbies over and over again. Most veterans are tired of it. http://www.filk.com/filk101_b.htm