Damien Sullivan's filk page

23 Apr 2012

Filk and me

I was introduced to filk back in college; my friend Sarah had a few tapes, "Minus Ten and Counting" and a couple of fantasy tapes. I wasn't clear on where she'd gotten them; "from a friend" or something like that. Certainly nothing one could buy easily. But I liked a bunch of the songs, and copied them -- the fantasy songs to one tape, and the space ones to blank space at the end of my Steeleye Span copies. I listened to them for a while, then kind of forgot about them over the years.

Snow Magic and Time Winds Tavern

Then in 2001, in one of the poetry/story readings we Caltech emigres and friends had in San Francisco, Myfanwy sang "The Horse Tamer's Daughter", which enthralled and mystified me. It seemed in classic ballad style, but with more wizards than I usually find in actual folk songs, and the "moons" in the chorus was a mystery. But I'd completely forgotten about filk, and kept thinking of it as taking place in Spain or France or something.

So I went home, and googled the phrases I remembered, and found a copy of the lyrics, attributed to Leslie Fish. That name I recognized, and it all came back, and suddenly the song made more sense. "Oh! It's filk!" Also, it turned out that someone, Myfanwy's sister (who sang it to her over the phone) or whoever the sister got the song from or someone further down the chain, had modified a few key lyrics, presumably to make it make more sense to someone not versed with Darkover, because "Hastur" and "first-level screen" are pretty obscure if you haven't read the books, but pretty blatant otherwise. Once I knew it was supposed to be a Darkover song, some other things made sense too.

At any rate, I really liked the song, and ended up memorizing it, all 90 heptasyllabic lines. Which made me really aware of the roles of rhyme, rhythm, and meaning in being able to reconstruct a song or poem you've learned, and I went back to Tolkien and picked out what I call Galadriel's Lament, from The Fellowship of the Ring. "I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew; of wind I sang, a wind there came, and through the branches blew." This wasn't the first Tolkien I'd memorized; back in fourth grade, we'd been asked in class to memorize something to recite in front of the class, and I picked Gimli's chant in Moria, and never really lost it. My class didn't seem to appreciate it; in return all I remember of their stuff is that one thing ended with "Veto the mosquito!" I've also repeated tried to memorize the long Tom Bombadil songs from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil but never got far as a kid; it was just too random, plus too long-seeming. Though after memorizing "Horse Tamer's Daughter" perhaps I should try again.

At this time I also learned where filk really lives: at sci-fi conventions. And I went to Worldcon 2001, the Millennium Philcon, and participated in the filk circles there. I think I'd actually seen filk mentioned at Vericon in Harvard, Jan 2001, but it hadn't registered with me; I spent my time playing games, or going to panels with James Ernest or Pete Abrams. But I sang at Worldcon, and got asked where I'd gotten the music for the Tolkien stuff. "I made it up!" I've also got the battle hymn of the Friendlies from Gordon Dickson's Soldier, Ask Not from my childhood. Not that I'm a religious fanatic, or religious, but somehow I liked the song in my darker moods. "Us against the world" and all that, perhaps.

One last story. I eventually went and ordered CDs, somewhat at random, but including Bob Kanefsky's "Roundworm". And the second song was... weird.

Background: On one of my collections of Irish music is "No Man's Land/Green Fields of France", by I Never Noticed Who. It was a moving, sad, anti-war song, to what sounded like a traditional melody, although you might think I'd have noticed that traditional songs wouldn't be about World War I. At any rate I didn't really remember the title.

And, on a tape other friends had given me, was "Nobody's Moggy Now", a crazy and fun song about a cat who got run over by a car.

So, the second song of "Roundworm" is "Nobody's Moggy Lands", to the tune and chorus structure of that Traditional World War I Song (as I remembered it) and to the subject matter of the Cat Roadkill Song. It worked, really well, but it was weird. Who would have thought of combining the two? Why? Research was called for. Research eventually told me that both songs were by one Eric Bogle. Which meant one mind had thought up both songs, which was pretty weird all by itself. In fact I think I read somewhere that Bob Kanefsky thought it was weird too, which was why he wrote "Nobody's Moggy Lands" in the first place.

This research also told me that That World War I song wasn't that traditional, at least in lyrics, to which we can only say "Duh!" It also told me that the Cat Roadkill Song really existed out there in the world. My saying this may seem odd, but when you get tapes of weird songs from your friends and don't get told where things are from, and never get around to asking, you start to wonder, a bit. Or at least I do. (And my being given the tape would have pre-dated Google, or the modern size of the Web.)

By the way, the songs of "Roundworm" are parodies of other filk songs. In most cases I don't know the originals. It is a credit to Kanefsky that I still enjoy everything anyway.

Skipping forward in time, yet another friend, former boyfriend of the first filk friend, got or was given the new space CD (since "Minus Ten" is apparently hopelessly out of print due to copyrights or something (which is too bad since I prefer some of those performances to those currently available)) which got me slowly moving toward buying it myself. (No! Not spending money! I'm a grad student!) It's on the way.

Later note: The other thing about filk is that when I get into it, it can take over my life for a while. Especially if I try memorizing something. When I started in on "Horse", I thought I'd take it easy, one stanza a day -- after all, even one of those 6 7-foot line stanzas looked like a big chunk. But it's addictive. I'd learn it, then keep repeating the stanza, and the only "cure" was to learn the next one, and I ended up with the whole thing in 3 or 4 days, instead of 15. Not much work got done. And today [21 Nov 2004] I started in on "Word of God", with a similar "one a day, or less", idea. But now I have the whole thing. Not perfectly, not without pauses, but I've recited it at least twice without any peeking, and I'm even getting better at the crazily swooping melody. And my homework? A tad delayed, shall we say.

Even further note: I've dug up "O Holey Knight" on my hard drive, on the death of Qui-Gon (The Phantom Menace) to the tune of "O Holy Night". The kind people of rec.music.filk told me Tom Smith wrote it, though he's not making it available in any form I can see. But after listening a couple of times I found the lyrics to the original, which I didn't know. The filk is funnier now, as I see the parallels. But I think the bulk of the amusement comes from the filk itself, not from the details of the parody.

But what the heck is this filk stuff, anyway?

Ah, I remember getting into arguments about that on rec.music.filk. The simplest definition is "the folk music of science fiction fandom", with 'filk' being a serendipitous and seized-upon typo. It's filk if people sing it in filk circles. A first cut at a subject matter delineation would be science fiction, space, and fantasy subjects, often but not always parodying other tunes, or each other, or borrowing traditional tunes to set science fictional words to (for example, "The Light-Ship" is set to "Rolling Down to Old Maui".) There are also a lot of songs about cats; are those filk songs, just because they're written by filkers and sung in filk circles? On the flip side, if a mainstream artist writes a song about space, or with a fantastic theme, does that make it filk? And the arguments rage on.

This page should beat anything I could write. Also see the filk.com Q&A.

Links to MP3s and lyrics

  • There's downloadable music at the Virtual Filksing, and some of it's really neat! Especially "The Word of God", "World within the crystal" (on computers, and actually at mp3.com [well, maybe no longer]), "This Game is Real", "Hope Eyrie", "Surprise!", "The Horse-Tamer's Daughter"...
  • MP3 and FLV files


  • Lyrics directory
  • "The Word of God" by Catherine Faber. My geologist past loves the second line of this, beyond the general goodness of the song. It's like a Deist hymn. Of course, I call myself atheist, but in the face of a song like this, who cares? "The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand."
  • Hand of God by Julia Ecklar. An anti-theist hymn? "While faith rots us like salt rots the land. If your God helps the helpless, may He help you all well. I am bound for the Outside to find my own hell."
  • "World within the crystal" by Steve Savitsky. An anthem for programmers.
  • "Surprise" by Leslie Fish. "And in twelve more years a man walked on the Moon!"
  • Hope Eyrie. This may be the space anthem.
  • "The Horse Tamer's Daughter" by Leslie Fish. And my own parody extension.
  • "Nobody's Moggy Lands"

    Links to Sources

  • Ben Newman
  • Prometheus Music
  • Random Factors
  • Tom Smith. Political lyrics. MP3s here, though I had to download .m3u files, which turned out to be text giving an mp3 url, and fetch that manually.
  • I got three CDs from Meg Davis. Took a while to grow on me, but the albums "Music of Wonderland" and "Captain Jack and the Mermaid" did. I'm sick of the song "Other People's Children", though, which is on all three CDs.

    My own personal song list

    Namely, what I've liked enough to memorize, plus scansion notes.
  • Three Rings for the Elven-Kings -- Tolkien. No regular structure.
  • Gimli's Chant ("The world was young, the mountains green") -- Tolkien. Very regular, 4 foot iambic rhyming couplets.
  • Galadriel's Lament -- Tolkien. Pretty regular, 7 foot iambic couplets. Ballad form.
  • Soldier, Ask Not -- Gordon Dickson. 4 foot dactylic lines, XAXA rhyme.
  • The Horse Tamer's Daughter -- Leslie Fish. 7 foot couplets (6 foot chorus); rhythm mixes iambs and anapests.
  • Surprise! -- Leslie Fish. First 2 lines form a 4-3 XA, 3rd line seems to set up a second one, but last turns into a waterfall of extra stresses.
  • Annabel Lee (when I can keep the 3rd and 4th stanzas straight) -- Poe. 7 foot anapestic couplets. My melodic form of this still needs work.
  • Two Days (or, "Bridal Shower") -- me. Couplets. Easy to memorize things when you write them, of course.
  • The Blacksmith -- traditional? but taken from Steeleye Span. Close to ballad form, but arguably with an extra stress at the end of each line, for 8 beats.
  • The Fairy Hills -- music "Si bheag, si mhor" by Turlough O'Carolan, lyrics by the band Wolfe Tones. 4 foot couplets?
  • "The Word of God" -- Cat Faber, standard ballad form. Not a standard ballad melody.
  • "The World Inside the Crystal" -- Steve Savitsky.

    Then there was what I memorized for singing class in Fall 2003, but I haven't practiced those.

    Back to me.