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Filk as Folk Music

By Gary McGath

The term "folk music" has undergone a strange metamorphosis, dating back to some time in the 1960's. Originally it meant music which was maintained in a culture primarily by oral tradition. But in the sixties, admiration for folk music grew to such proportions that artists started writing their own "folk songs," recording them in studios, and selling them to audiences of millions. Some of this music is very good, but it's hardly "folk music" in the traditional sense.

Some would say that folk music has largely been killed by modern media. It's so easy to listen to the radio or TV, or to buy a recording, that people don't have the incentives they once had to make their own music. Today's factory worker or farmer is more likely to be found humming a top hit than a song composed by another worker or farmer.

Still, real folk music continues to exist, wherever there are communities of people who share their own song ideas. Filk music is a prime example of this.

I define filk music as the folk music of the science fiction community. Like old-fashioned folk music, it is disseminated largely by oral tradition; the fact that recording devices help the process doesn't significantly change its meaning. There are published filk tapes and songbooks, but these have small runs (hardly ever over a thousand) and so far aren't the primary means by which people learn about songs. The important points of exchange are conventions and housefilks, at which people hear songs, perhaps record them, and then perform them themselves.

Whenever a piece of information is passed through many people, it inevitably changes. This is true of folk songs, and of filk. Even in commercial filk, we can see this happening; compare Technical Difficulties' rendition of "Ladyhawke" with Julia Ecklar's original. In some cases, a set of lyrics may be transferred to a completely different tune; some filkers make a game of doing this (e.g., "You can sing anything you want to 'Alice's Restaurant'"). In other cases, it's the tune which is retained, and a new set of lyrics introduced. Parody at its best comments on the original and puts a new slant on the subject matter. In other cases, neither the music nor the lyrics are retained, but a series of songs by different authors will develop into a running commentary, or even a "filk war," as with the explosion of parodies several years ago on Cynthia McQuillin's "Fuel to Feed the Drive."

The dynamic quality of folk music, including filk, stems not from any requirement for the authors to be anonymous, nor from some supposed collective authorship, but from the fact that active participation in the musical community is encouraged. To be sure, some are more active than others; some are better performers and earn more admiration. But those who can contribute only some simple parodies, or who make a sincere effort at a performance, are given an opportunity to be heard; and the simple fact that they have tried to make songs of their own makes them more effective listeners. Filk audiences don't just let the music roll over them; being music-makers themselves, they listen.

The result of this process is a wide range of music, some of it very good, much of it terrible. But it's not music which has an uncrossable line at the footlights. With its breadth of creative input, filk reflects many of the different values, thoughts, and hopes of members of the science fiction community. Even if this results in our having to put up with some dreadful performances, filk is a musical culture which is alive and active.

Urban Tapestry --