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What is Filk Music?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Of all the resources online dedicated to explaining filk music, many have one thing in common: they start out with a warning that there is no single, agreed-upon definition for it. An underground phenomenon grown by grassroots enthusiasm and ad-hoc spontaneity, filk music is its own happening. That said, some facts are clear. This music started among sci-fi fandom at conventions, possibly as far back as the 1920s, and consisted of both original music and song parodies of all things sci-fi — and other subjects to boot.

The name filk comes from a 1950s typo of an essay improperly entitled, "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music," by Lee Jacobs. Many early sci-fi fans tended to be folk music fans that used music as an expression of social protest and comment. Hence, this music is considered expressive, but modified folk music. It is so popular there are traveling conventions dedicated to it, as well as groups and fans all over the globe.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

While the roots of this music are steadfastly planted in the sci-fi community, as song parody it has traveled a long way back from the nether regions of space. Many people know perfectly well that song parody is filk, but are unaware that it also includes original music and came from sci-fi fandom. To this end, the internet is replete with discussions and debates trying to determine if Weird Al Yankovic is a filker or not.

As parody, this music has often been featured on the small screen. Many examples could be found in the hit television series, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-1999). In the third season's Fins, Femmes and Gems, love goddess Aphrodite blows love-dust in Gabrielle's face just as she glances into a mirror. Gabrielle becomes obsessed with herself and is soon happily singing her virtues to the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies Theme.

Though most filk has a sci-fi or fantasy theme, it can be about anything — a beloved pet, a car, even a computer. It is predominately acoustic in nature, in keeping with its folk roots, but electronic or a rockier versions also exist. It is most often shared as a group in late night singing sessions after standard conventions, or at conventions. While low-tech in its simplistic nature, the structure that drives this music today is predominantly technology-based interactive networks like the Internet, mailing lists, email rings, Web forums and so on.

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      Man playing a guitar