Note: This was written by Jed Hartman in 1990, with a few modifications by others since then.
Parts of it are out of date and/or inaccurate. It's provided as a historical document, but it should not be read as a useful or accurate description of the current state of filking, at Swarthmore or elsewhere.
It was written for the use of Swarthmore students, and was not originally intended for a worldwide audience.
Definition/history of the name "filksong":
Filksongs are folksongs by or about science fiction fans or writers. Or, more loosely, any song which is either to the tune of another song or in any way even vaguely related to sf or fantasy or fandom. The term "filk" arose in the 1950's, as a typo by Lee Jacobs in the title of an essay. That 'zine never got published, but the term "filk" got passed around by fans, and the name stuck. The rest is history.1
Filksings take place at sf conventions and anywhere else where fans are gathered. East coast filksings tend to consist of everyone joining in to sing every song, while the west coast tends toward "round robin" or "bardic circle" (a term derived from the SCA) filksings, in which each person takes a turn and sings a song. At cons, particularly at big ones, there are occasionally filk concerts, in which Real Live Musicians perform songs, often their own, onstage with microphones and everything. There are also Open Mike concerts, in which anyone who wants to can sign up for a ten-minute slot. There are even a couple of annual conventions devoted entirely to filking.
History of filk publishing:
The largest, and probably the first, publisher of filksongs and related materials used to be a company called Off Centaur Publications, a company owned and operated by three fans. Sometime in 1988, OCP incorporated itself; soon afterward, due to internal disagreements, it broke up.
Some of the people involved in OCP formed a new company, Firebird Arts and Music, which as of this writing (2/1/90) is still going strong, selling a wide variety of filk tapes, songbooks, art prints, sculpture, letterheads, and more mainstream folk tapes and songbooks.
Other OCP people, disgruntled (there was a lot of bad feeling over the breakup; at least one person has accused the founders of Firebird of illegally taking over OCP's assets to start the new company), went to other filk companies. The only one of these I know anything about is Thor, which sells at least two new tapes of Kathy Mar's music. Mar said, at WorldCon '89, that now others could finally hear her music the way she hears it. Thor is generally regarded as having the best recording equipment available in the filk world. The only other filk publisher I know of is Wail Songs, which seems to specialize in songs written and performed by SCA folk, particularly Heather Rose Jones, and recordings of con-filking.
Most filk material is widely available at sf cons in the dealers' room; there are a lot of independent dealers who order from all the filk publishers and who still might have leftover stock from OCP (some of OCP's material is now out of print indefinitely).
Please note that filksongs ARE copyrighted. As with any form of art, they should not be copied without permission from the author. Filkers tend to be relaxed about this kind of thing, though, as far as I can tell, and most filk writers seems to not mind their lyrics being copied AS LONG AS THE AUTHOR IS GIVEN CREDIT. Please, at the very least, retain the author's name on any filk you copy. As for the tapes, please bear in mind that some people make their living from the production and sale of such tapes, and anytime you copy one you're stealing from those individual people. This is not some big faceless conglomerate company, folks; you can meet most of the publishers and many of the performers at any big sf convention, face to face. This is something I feel strongly about, and I was surprised to discover that some people around here thought filk tapes were put out by big record companies.
How to find out more about filks:
To learn tunes to songs you don't know, the only thing I can suggest is to ask around. Someone may have heard of the original song. The best way to find out about filks in general is probably to attend sf conventions, particularly big ones. There will almost always be rooms available for filking all night every night of the con, and there will almost always be knowledgeable filkers available to talk with (many of whom are both friendly and extremely voluble, and some of whom are professional performers whose tapes are available). The main books of filks available are the Westerfilk collections (volumes I and II have been out for some time, and OCP was starting volume III when it went under) and the NESFA Hymnal, volumes 1 and 2 (NESFA is the New England Science Fiction Association). I don't know whether the other companies have catalogs, but I know Firebird does. The addresses I know are, again as of 2/1/90:
Firebird Arts and Music, Inc. (current as of 11/98)
P.O. Box 30268
Portland, OR 97294
P.O. Box 40312
Downey, CA 90241
Wail Songs (may be out of date)
P.O. Box 29888
Oakland, CA 94604
Filking at Swarthmore:
OCP had published lots of tapes and songbooks during its years of existence. One such songbook (I believe their first) was The Westerfilk Collection, Volume I. Someone at Swarthmore, probably Shoshanna Green, bought this book and typed up many of the songs in it (mostly those to known tunes rather than those with original music) on the College's PR1ME computer. A few months before OCP's breakup, I telephoned them and requested permission to keep copies online and to keep five or six hard copies available for use at filksings. This permission was reluctantly granted, with the proviso that credit and copyright be attached to all songs from Westerfilk. Copyright notices are now attached to all such songs, and OCP's breakup does not nullify that copyright. Please respect it.
I also added to our files, at that time, with permission from OCP, the lyrics to Frank Hayes' "Never Set the Cat on Fire," from his album Don't Ask.
Several traditions unique to Swarthmore filking have evolved over the years. One is the Inaugural Filksing, an event held at the beginning of each new SWIL president's term. Exactly how it's run is up to the participants. Swarthmore filksings traditionally end with the filks of "God Save the King" and "God Save the Queen" from Westerfilk I; this tradition apparently began because the lyrics are part of a section of the songbook entitled "Show Stoppers." Show stoppers are usually short songs or bits of songs which, inserted into the middle of a filksing, stop the show by making everyone burst into laughter; however, the name was interpreted to mean "things sung at the end of the show," and the tradition stuck.
Most Swarthmore filks of recent years tend to be about classes or, occasionally, comic books. In our files are two filk musicals, The Rocky Horror Mutant Show and Schlock Treatment, written by Shoshanna Green.
1Correction thanks to Lee Gold. See the History of Filk.
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