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Both a noun and a verb, filk refers to fan-written, fan-sung songs about science fiction or fannish themes and to the events, or filksings, where such music, known as filksongs, are performed by filkers.

Once performed in casual sing-alongs at club meetings and in the stairwells and spare corners of cons, filksinging (also known as filking) has evolved into a highly organized system of concerts and “bardic circles” whose participants have little patience with the musically unskilled. The traditional sing-alongs seem to be dead.

Although filk began as fannish parodies to the tunes of mundane songs, the meaning of filksong has greatly broadened since Fancyclopedia 2 (see below) was published. Today, filk songs may be either parodies or completely original songs, and they encompass a variety of styles. The criterion for a filk song is its place or the place of its creators in fannish culture rather than adherence to any musical approach. However, by definition, they are not instrumental music.

Filksinging still takes place at conventions, where filk dealers may huckster songbooks and CDs. Filksongs appear in fanzines, and many conventions have Filk (or Music) GoHs. NESFA published two major filk songbooks and Boskone used to have a filksong contest. Lots of filksongs, like "Bouncing Potatoes," chronicle events in fanhistory.

However, the filk community now overlaps the fannish community rather than being strictly part of it, and many filkers don't participate in the sf microcosm at all but only go to specialized filk cons. Filk has its own awards, the Filk Hall of Fame presented at FilkOntario and the Pegasus Awards presented at the Ohio Valley Filk Festival, and its own traditions. Like other activities that began in fandom, and continue to be part of it to an extent, filkdom has in some respects become a fandom unto itself.

Non Filk

Sf-related songs by mainstream figures who aren't closely involved with fannish culture (e.g., the music of Weird Al Yankovic, Jonathan Coulton, The Rocky Horror Show, etc.) aren't considered filk, even if they have SF themes; if widely adopted by filkers, though, they're sometimes called "found filk."

Filking isn't the only kind of music at cons. Some conventions hold a dance with DJs and, particularly at Minicon, some musicians get together to perform mundane music.

Almost any dance at an sf con will include Rocky Horror's "Time Warp," as surely as the "Hora" will be danced at a bar mitzvah. (At Sydney Krause's bat mitzvah, they played both, and at the first strains of the "Time Warp," Bill Higgins quipped, "Ah, the folk song of my people.")

Filk History

While the singing of filksongs goes back at least as far as the second Worldcon, Chicon I in 1940, and while such venerable groups as the Futurians and FAPA had their own fannish songs, the term filk dates to 1953, and is attributed to a typo made by Washington, D.C., fan Lee Jacobs in an apa contribution.

LeeJ misspelled folk song in a piece he’d submitted to SAPS entitled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music." The article was about supposed sf incidents in folk songs, but actually discussed a number of thoroughly smutty songs, taking various metaphors in them as if they were meant literally. Wrai Ballard, the OE of SAPS, decided the piece might run afoul of censorious postal authorities, so he didn't run it in the mailing, but he noted the typo of “filk” for “folk” and mentioned it to a lot of fans. (This may be why some people believe filksinging to be an abbreviation for "filthy folk singing.")

Not long after that another SAPS member, Karen Anderson, took LeeJ’s typo and defined it as musical parodies written by fans. Then, on Die Zeitschrift für Vollstandigen Unsinn #774 p22 by Karen Anderson is the first-known song published as a filk song, written (see the note in The Zed #780) by Poul Anderson.

Filk Song from Fancyclopedia 2 ca. 1959
(Share) A type of music which, if it weren't fannish, would be called a folk song; fan parodies or pastiches of this or other types of mundane chansons.

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