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Saturday
Apr072007

What is "filk"?

(Shortcut to this page: http://bit.ly/whatisfilk)

What is filk? Ask five filkers this question and you're guaranteed to get fifteen answers...at least. The term itself came from a typo, an erroneous version of the word "folk", as in "folk music".

Here's the "what is filk" page from Kay Shapero's Filk FAQ.
Here's the Interfilk definition page.
Here's the Wikipedia entry on 'filk music.'

I especially like Gary McGath's definition: "Filk music is a musical movement among fans of science fiction and fantasy fandom and closely related activities, emphasizing content which is related to the genre or its fans, and promoting broad participation. Filkers are people who participate in this movement." (Here's the full essay.)

Here are some definitions offered by other members of the filk community from around the world:

D. Glenn Arthur - Joe Bethancourt - Dictionary.com's definition - Sherman Dorn - Lee Gold - Jed Hartman - Judith & Dave Hayman - Jordin Kare - Conrad Leviston - Michael Liebmann - Jane Mailander - Chris Malme - MASSFILC definition - Gary McGath - Erica Neely and Mike Richards - Nick Smith - Tom Smith - Dr. Paul Schuch - Annie Walker - Julia West - Rob Wynne

You can find filk conventions and filk gatherings in many different venues and locations. My music group has performed at filk events in Germany, England, California, across the U.S. and Canada. Our home turf and favourite convention: FilKONtario. But I digress.

Here's my attempt to answer the "What Is Filk" question:


I've been attending filk circles for over twenty years, and it has become clear to me that the word has different meanings for different people, and different meanings in different contexts.

Confused yet? :-)

I think it would help to explain the word "filk" as used in different contexts. Feel free to argue with me, or make your own suggestions.

"I can't believe Gomer FILKED my song!"


In this context, "filk" is used as a verb, and means that Gomer took the speaker's song and replaced the lyrics with different ones which scan to the original tune. This does NOT mean that all filk music is composed of parodies.

"We were FILKing last night until 4 a.m."


"Filk" is again used as a verb, but in this case it basically means the act of participating in a musical jam session (either performing together, taking turns, or listening). Someone who does not perform music at all but prefers to just listen instead can still use the statement above.

"Who was the blue-haired guy in the FILK circle last night?"


In this case, "filk circle" refers to the particular group who gathered to make music (see definition above). One could use the term "music circle" instead, and the meaning would basically be the same in this context.


"Are you coming to the houseFILK this weekend?"


Housefilks are social events at which there is some element of filking. I've been to housefilks where people just hang out and talk, with a few songs scattered here and there. Most housefilks, however, have a focus on making music, with more opportunity for casual socializing than is possible in a hectic filk convention atmosphere.

"Is that an example of FILK music?"


Oooo, now we're getting to the thorny issues. The definition of "filk music" has caused much controversy.

Some popular definitions of filk that have cropped up over the years (please note that several contradict each other):


  • - It is a parody with a science fiction theme.

  • - It is a parody.

  • - It is folk music performed in a filk circle.

  • - Pretty much anything that is performed in a filk circle
    (i.e. not necessarily a parody and not necessarily with
    a science fiction theme).

  • - It is based on a literary sf or fantasy theme. (Star Trek tv series doesn't cut it)

  • - It has a focus on sf, fantasy, technology, or the media.

  • - It has a focus on sf, fantasy, technology, the media, or cats.


Because of the confusing use of the word "filk" in contexts where the meaning changes, it's no wonder few people can agree on what "filk music" really is.

I become suspicious of people who are too aggressive about establishing an exact definition of filk music because their motivations are often based on the need to separate those who belong from those who don't. I've heard some people yearn for the old days, when people sang "real" filk. I've also heard people label various performers or groups who regularly attend filk conventions as being "non-filk", automatically categorizing them as outsiders until they agree to conform to certain rules.

If pressed for a definition, I'd say that filk music is anything performed at a filk circle, but generally tends to focus on topics related to science fiction, fantasy, technology and the media. My definition is based more on the type of songs I've heard performed at filk circles rather than expecting people IN the filk circle to conform to a particular definition.

As a filker, I welcome new voices, types of music and musical tastes. They may not be my own, but I enjoy the variety and infusion of new blood. It keeps me from getting too complacent. I also find that I'm almost always inspired to write more music or push myself to write different types of music after I attend a con at which I hear a wide variety of musical styles.

"Is she a FILKER?"


Answering this question is likely going to get me into more hot water, but here goes.

In my opinion, anyone who honestly believes they are a filker IS a filker. Thus someone who attends filk conventions but only writes and sings love songs that have nothing to do with science fiction is a filker if he or she believes so. 

If you consider yourself to be part of the filking community, then you're a filker. I was once very impressed by a performer I first heard at Confusion. His vocal and songwriting skills were impressive, and he was charming and friendly in the filk circle. He also attended several conventions a year and was fairly well-known in the filk community.

Upon being asked if he was a filker, however, he reportedly replied (with some scorn), "I'm not a filker. I'm a MUSICIAN." 

I consider myself a filker (AND a musician :-)). I also consider Urban Tapestry to be a filk group even though I know some people believe that our music isn't filk music. We write and perform songs about a wide range of topics from food to computers to love to friendships to media to the Internet to science fiction books. And we all feel very lucky to be part of the filking community.

Summary...


The bottom line: don't let yourself get mired down in the controversy and politics of defining filk.

If you like the music and bonding you find in a particular filk circle, then stay and enjoy. If you don't, then find another circle (there are often several at each filk convention, each with its own personality and variety of music), or start your own. :-)

Related FAQ pages:
How did filk get started?
What is the filk community?

Reader Comments (10)

[...] What is filk? How did filk get started? What’s the difference between a ‘bardic’ and a ‘chaos’ filk circle? What is ‘ose’? What is ‘found filk?’ What is ‘Frank Hayes disease?’ What are ‘one-shots?’ [...]

[...] What is filk? How did filk get started? What’s the difference between a ‘bardic’ and a ‘chaos’ filk circle? What is ‘ose’? What is ‘found filk?’ What is ‘Frank Hayes disease?’ What are ‘one-shots?’ Any advice on choosing a guitar? What is a “filkhog”? How can I avoid being one? What is a Listener Guest Of Honor? What is a Toastmaster? What is a ‘follower’? [...]

How about some examples?

July 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Van O'Brien

I see that you've linked to http://www.radix.net/~dglenn/defs/filk.html -- that's now just a "this page has moved" message and a redirect; the new location is http://www.dglenn.org/defs/filk.html

(Anybody got any tips for convincing the major search engines that a site has moved? It's been close to a year and Google still sends people to the dead location and not the current one.)

October 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterD. Glenn Arthur Jr.

To D. Glenn Arthur: I've updated the URL, thanks.

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteradmin

To George: I've posted this as a http://www.filking.net/filkfaq/wherre-can-i-find-recorded-samples-of-filk-online/" rel="nofollow">FAQ entry: e.g. where can I find recorded samples of filk online?

November 5, 2007 | Unregistered Commenteradmin

After reading some of the long posts that attempt to answer a relatively simple question "What is FILK?" I see that they have failed in this regard. I attribute this to the fact that the people trying to answer the question are to involved in the topic to give a coherent answer without trying to incorporate a lot of specifics over some contested points.

Since I have not participated in FILK at any level (as far as I know, but I maybe wrong) I will attempt to give a definition for those who have know idea what it is and haven't experienced it or even talked about it with someone who has.

FILK is a group in which individuals share personalized expressions to artistic forms whose origins maybe new or previously created within the current group or a previous group.

I hope this helps, but somehow I'm sure I have just made things worse. :)

June 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

[...] Bo Burnham singing his nerd-folk/filk song, New [...]

[...] Bo Burnham singing his nerd-folk/filk song, New [...]

[...] He goes to his friendly neighborhood comic book store every week to buy his comics. He goes to filk conventions (and takes me with him). I love it…I think it’s adorable, and I appreciate [...]

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