What do you get when you throw together a couple of guitars, maybe a few kazoos, some classic sci-fi/fantasy tropes, and a typo in a convention program? The wonderful fan-fueled world of filk music, of course.
Like fan-fic set to music, filk is an extension of the deep affinity sci-fi and fantasy fans have for the genre. From songs about space-faring adventures and fantastical quests to pop culture figures, the filk community has something for everyone.
Filk music got its start in the 1950s as an off-shoot of the burgeoning folk music revival.
Against the backdrop of the still-growing sci-fi and fantasy convention scene, musically-inclined fans began holding small gatherings and trading songs back and forth. While the night would begin with various folk standards, it inevitably turned to a cauldron of parodies, original songs, and new lyrics set to the standard melodies. The unifying theme was outer space weirdness, fellowships and elves, and witty lyrics about the trials and travails of sci-fi and fantasy conventions.
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When the gatherings become a bit more formalized and were eventually included in a convention program, a typo that traded the “o” in “folk” for an “i” gave the style its name. Since its inception, the edges and boundaries of filk music have expanded to cover a range of fandoms and fan culture while still holding largely true to that sci-fi and fantasy core.
Filk can be serious or humorous, parody or homage, and everything in between. The two constants are a love of all things sci-fi/fantasy and a remarkably supportive ecosystem of fellow musicians and fans.
My first experience with filk was perhaps more filk-adjacent, but it was nonetheless a gateway.
I was rummaging through some of parents old records with a friend in high school when we stumbled across a folk/pop record by none other than Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy.
Alongside the folk standards like “If I had a Hammer,” Nimoy recorded a couple of Spock-themed tunes ("Highly Illogical" and "Spock Thoughts") as well as the now-infamous ode to Tolkien, “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" (below).
I found these songs hilarious at the time—and I still kind of do.
My next foray into filk would come by way of the soundtrack to Firefly. While searching for the show’s theme on Youtube, I stumbled across “Mal's Song" by Vixy and Tony (below). “Mal’s Song” is basically a perfect expansion of “The Ballad of Serenity” and builds it lyric around the classic “you can’t take the sky from me” refrain.
Anyone who is a fan of Firefly will immediately identify with this and feel at home. We know the tune, we love Mal, it’s perfect. That was really my introduction to a vibrant and often delightfully odd community of musicians and fans looking for new ways to tell their stories or expand on the stories they love.
Upending common tropes or approaching a story – fairytales for instance – from a new perspective are common themes across sci-fi and fantasy. Filk is, unsurprisingly, no different. A favorite example is “Wicked Girls” (below) by Hugo Award-winning author Seanan McGuire – who you may also know as Mira Grant.
“Wicked Girls” is a feminist ode to fantasy’s iconic female characters. It is both melancholy, hopeful, and brutally honest. Just the sort of thing you’d expect from Seanan McGuire.
“The Girl That's Never Been,” another favorite from Vixy and Tony, tells the story of a grown up Alice from Alice in Wonderland struggling to find her place in the world after her adventures through the looking glass. At its best filk is another avenue to explore the characters and settings we love.
Of course, not all filk is a serious examination of tropes and themes. You’ve got classics like Leslie Fish’s "Banned from Argo," which sees a hard-partying Enterprise crew on shore leave banned from a planet, and Bill Sutton’s “9 to 5 Barbarian" (below).
It also isn’t hard to find hilarious contemporary fare like Jonathan Coulton’s zombie ballad "Re: Your Brains" (below). Whether clever and irreverent or introspective and thought-provoking, at its best filk is a distillation of everything great about sci-fi and fantasy. From clever pun-filled hijinks to thought-provoking ballads, there’s a home for everyone in the world of filk.
Next time you’re at a convention, take a look at the program and odds are it’ll point you to a space where you can take a break from crowds and the general grind, maybe have a laugh or two, and commiserate with your like-minded brethren in a way you haven’t before.
If you happen to be at WorldCon or one of the other larger cons, there’s very likely an entire mini filk con pulsing alongside the main attractions.
That’s true joy of the filk community—fans and creators finding yet another way to explore and pay homage to the genre they love while commiserating with and supporting one another.
Featured still from "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" music video via YouTube