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Filk-ing Around: A Brief History of Geeky, Folky, Fan Music

it's time to play the music

We were unable to find a picture of the townspeople of Canton actually singing Jayne’s Theme so you’ll have to settle for this guy from the same scene yelling about whisky, with a replica of Han Solo frozen in carbonite highlighted in the background. You may now return to your regularly scheduled post.

Imagine this: you’re in a hotel room surrounded by people in various costumes you both recognize (and wonder about) then someone in full Final Fantasy gear picks up a guitar and starts singing a tribute to the game.  After he’s finished he asks the girl with the frighteningly accurate elf ears “Pick, pass, or play”.  She chooses “Play”, takes the guitar from him, and performs a haunting ballad about a homeless alien.  It’s not typical Top 40 radio fare, but that’s not the point.  It’s all about being a dedicated enough fan to write and/or perform a song about your fandom.  Turn off your iPods and get out your instruments!  Tonight we’ll be exploring the world of filk (the term began as a typographical error, as all fun words do) music.

It’s thought that filk music began in the 40s and 50s as late-night singing sessions in hotel rooms during some of the earliest science fiction conventions.  The typo came along, according to Wikipedia, “as a misspelling of ‘folk music’ in an essay by Lee Jacobs, “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music” in the early 50s.  Its first documented use as a term was in 1953 in the publication The Journal for Utter Nonsense.  Sheet music for filk songs also began publishing in the 50s.

Filk music, however, wasn’t a recognized activity at conventions until the 70s and 80s.  Rooms were sometimes set aside specifically for filk circles to take place like the one described at the beginning.  When they weren’t, filkers performed in hallways, bars, or wherever they could find.  Over time, conventions solely dedicated to filk began (including the Ohio Valley Filk Fest in Columbus, Ohio, on my travel wish list).  To fund filkers who wanted to travel to other countries to perform, organizations like Interfilk were set up in the 90s.  Filk music has even had its own record labels like Off Centaur Publications.

Filk has now expanded beyond the convention floor to an Internet radio station, email lists, and filk sites.  Filkers are in Europe and Canada (home of the Filk Hall of Fame) as well as the US, creating a love of combining high-tech content with low-tech acoustic instruments around the world.  Filk music is open to anyone regardless of musical skill or talent.  All you need is something to play and something eccentric to sing about.

This post originally appeared on Heather Gleiser’s blog Cultured.

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