Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Personal History of Filk

As musical genres go, filk is incredibly diverse. It's one of those things that you immediately know when you hear it. But it didn't start out that way. I can't do as much justice to the evolution of filk as this academic paper by Sally Childs-Helton does, but I can throw my own experience into the mix. 

In contrast to many more venerable filkers, my first exposure to this music was on my computer. A middle school friend who was obsessed with Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar book series decided I needed to hear some tracks from CDs meant to accompany the books. She called the songs "filk."

A Mercedes Lackey CD cover. Vintage!

I didn't question the name and instead fell in love with the music. I had already spent a few years prior fangirling over soundtracks from the console RPGs Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, which had a very strong Celtic influence. This "filk" thing was often inspired by Celtic folk music as well, and had lyrics about fantasy and sci-fi stories.

This about sums up my reaction. 

A little bit of context is helpful. Some ten or twenty years before I discovered her songs, Mercedes Lackey was an active member of the filk community. She wrote lyrics and collaborated with more musically-inclined filkers for the tunes and vocals. Two of her frequent collaborators were Leslie Fish and Heather Alexander, both of whom had forceful alto voices that lilted with the words. This sort of collaboration, I found out later, is extremely common among filkers. We tend to our own, so much so that if you need a violin or cello for your recording, sometimes all you need to do is ask. 

Anywho, the point is that I really dug this filk thing. I started writing my own songs in my freshman year of high school, and had a small collection by the time I attended my first two fan conventions in 2004. These were MarCon, a general sci-fi/fantasy con with a strong filk track, and the Ohio Valley Filk Festival (OVFF), a dedicated filk con with its very own Grammys, the Pegasus Awards. 

I enjoyed them so much that I went back to both the next year, which marked the beginning of my ungodly obsession with entering the OVFF song contest. They have two contests every year, but I was never very good at one of them, the Iron Filker contest. Think Iron Chef, but songwriting. I stick to the one that actually gives you some notice regarding the topic you're supposed to write about. 

I discovered filk at the very moment when it was transforming into something bigger than music played at conventions. Albums of filk really only started showing up in significant numbers in the 1990s, with a select few filkers doing this shindig for a living. Filk's online presence was also rapidly growing when I stuck my feet in the water. So it only makes sense that my introduction to filk was on the computer rather than in person. The face-to-face component of filking is still hugely important; think of it as the Guest of Honor among a host of other participants. 

Nowadays, filkers have branched out significantly from folky styles. As a prelude to some featured artist posts, I'll end this one with a recommendation for classic filk. The late Cynthia McQuillin, an avid filker who composed over 300 songs, wrote one song that I remember hearing early on and making "eep" noises about after it ended. Check out "Black Davie's Ride" if you like songs about highwaymen with fast, catchy guitar.

How were you introduced to filk? Let us know in the comments!


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