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Saturday, June 24, 2006


On my recent trip to Brisbane, I visited my friend Natalie Prior, whose husband is a recorder musician, and when Peter very kindly made me a CD of some music I needed desperately for my work, I suddenly realised what my Garage Band software was for, and that I could do exactly the same thing on my own computer - that finally I could put on to CD some of my irreplaceable tapes. I don’t have the appropriate adaptors, but I have an internal microphone and a good CD/radio/tape deck, so what-the heck!

The tape I wanted to do right away was a filk music collection made especially for me as a gift. As long as I was recording this, it was a great excuse to get out all my filk song collections to listen to, bringing back my early days in fandom. I bought them during the 70s and 80s, when people were recording them. Filking is still a part of science fiction fandom, but those were the golden days, for me, at least, when filking happened at every convention and songs were composed for fans to sing, some by fans such as Leslie Fish and Linda Short, others even by writers. Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson and Joe Haldeman were all known for their filks. Charles De Lint, who sings and plays at cons, says he doesn’t do filks, but was horrified to learn that a humorous song he had composed about Batman counted as filk music.

What is filk music? For the most part, it’s science fiction and fantasy-related music written to existing tunes, which makes them easier for people to sing, as long as they have the words. But there is a lot of original music too - Linda Short’s first album, “Songs Of The Seven”, was all original music, but people complained because they couldn’t just sing them with the words, so she did another, “Ditties From the Edge of The World,” with existing tunes for her original words. There’s something very special - magical! - about sitting around late at night during a con, singing songs related to your passion, some about novels you’ve read, others about novels you might then decide to read as a result. And, of course, there are the media-related songs, about “Star Trek”, “Blake’s Seven” and such. I confess to having written a few myself, just for fun, at one stage. Pretty silly ones, which I certainly realised when Linda recorded one for me, “All My Tribbles”. “Day Trip To Vulcan” went to the tune of “Day Trip To Bangor”, of course, and was a tongue-in-cheek relating of the story of the Trek episode “Amok Time”, as told by “Bones” McCoy. Something along the lines of “Didn’t we have a lovely time/The day we went to Vulcan/The weather was fine, only one-twenty-nine/And that was in the shade, you know...” There were others, even sillier. I never, of course, thought myself anything like the giants of filk music. Well, they could sing, for a start.

My songs weren’t, let’s face it, even as good as the filks we used to sing together in Austrek, my Star Trek club, back in the 1970s. We had some cheeky folk then. My best memory is of one that went to the tune of “Advance Australia Fair”, that started, “Trekkers of the world rejoice, Spock’s in pon farr again/The only question that remains is who and where and when...” but there was another one, very suggestive, that went to the tune of “The Quartermaster’s Store”. I can remember being at a con in Sydney where the guest of honour was George Takei, who wanted to know the Sulu verse and the song’s composer was just too embarrassed to sing it to him!

Linda’s voice was a sweet folk soprano along the lines of Joan Baez, if you can imagine Joan Baez with a northern British accent. Leslie Fish, an American, was more like Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, though huskier, possibly due to her chain smoking. She can sing in a very cheeky style for the humorous songs or powerfully for the serious ones.

Linda Short was a wonderful British filk singer whom I met through “Blake’s Seven” fandom some time in the 1980s. Well, we never actually met, even when I went to England - she was ill at the time and lived, anyway, so far to the north it was just too far to travel. She was a pen pal. I do regret never having met her, especially since she passed away a few years ago, from a breast cancer she assured me had been caught in time.

Over the years, she recorded three tapes. I bought the generally available ones, but one she made for me at Christmas one year when she thought it was the only way to be sure she gave me something I didn’t have. What a treasure it was, too! Several of the songs came from the Westerfilk collection, some were her own, including two with words by Rudyard Kipling, one with words by a very funny British fan writer called Val Douglas and - wince! - my tribbles song. Tonight I got out the tape and, with a lot of messing around, finally managed to get it on to iTunes through Garage band and burn it on to CD, so that I never again have to worry about my precious personal Linda Short filk tape degrading and snapping. Now that she is gone, it is all the more important to make sure her voice stays alive, at least.

As I write this I am listening to “Skybound”, a Leslie Fish tape I bought at Aussiecon 2, back in 1985. It’s got some gorgeous pieces on it, but her classic is “Solar Sailors” which was actually released on record and had such delights as “Banned From Argo”, another suggestive ditty about what the Enterprise crew get up to on shore leave - the names are never actually mentioned, but you know who the characters are. I remember singing that one in Israel, to my American room mates, who hadn’t heard of filking before (though they did have a taste for Breton folk music, something I hadn’t discovered before and loved when they played it for me).

Why is it called filk music? I don’t think anyone really knows, though everyone has an opinion. One is that they’re “filched from folk songs”, another that it started with a typo. Probably there are plenty more theories. Whatever the explanation, it’s a wonderful form of expression for SF fans, something I don’t think you’ll find in any other “fandom” , or not to the same extent.

Ah, doesn’t it bring back the memories, listening to it all...?


Anonymous said...

"Filk" genuinely began with a typo, in a contribution to the issue of the Spectator Amateur Press Association. It was rejected by the Official Editor as being "unmailable" which it probably was, inasmuch as the title was supposed to be something like "The Effects of Science Fiction on Modern American Folk Music" and consisted of some truly filthy bawdy lyrics analyzed as if the metaphors therein were literal. I'd love to find a copy but I don't expect that's ever going to happen.

HOWEVER, the OE couldn't resist telling other people about the typo, and Karen Anderson (who lives in the Los Angeles and is frequently at LASFS meetings where I can talk to her) decided the word should mean something, and adopted it for fannish parody folk lyrics. Lee Gold tracked down both the first article in which it was used (this by Poul and Karen Anderson in a SAPS zine), a copy of which which can be found here,
and the first actual publication of something intended to BE a filksong (you can find a link there from the above), "Barbarous Allen".

Of course filk, like most living traditions, didn't take long to wander out of the strictest definition, and these days has the rather hazy one of the folk music of the SF/Fantasy fan community.

The Fish, you will be glad to hear, is still around and recording things, as are a lot of other folks. Check out the FAQ for details. You will also find some old tapes have been reincarnated on CD (and at least one pair of records: Leslie & the Dehorn Crew's "Folk Songs For Folks Who Haven't Even Been Yet" and "Songs for Solar Sailors" are now combined on CD from Random Factors).

Anonymous said...

Got your note, recreated the post on my live journal.

Anonymous said...

I tend to believe the typo explanation myself. Is there a filk community in Australia now?

Anonymous said...

Had to say hi. I googled this post while trying to find out if anyone had put Linda's filks onto CD. I'm selling my car with the tape deck and my precious tapes are wearing out a bit anyway. I'm not living without them, that's for sure!

Anyway, I'm an awful correspondent, but I do often think of you. Good luck with the new year of school.

TheMadBlonde said...

I have no idea if you'll still see a comment on a 9 year old post, but here goes: 30 years ago I first encountered filk through 2 tapes of Blake's 7 songs by Linda Short. I fell madly in love with some of them & they still rattle around in my brain. I finished college, got married, finished grad school, & somewhere along the way in many moves I lost or loaned out the tapes. Never met anyone who'd heard of them. Then came the wonder of the internet & I got reconnected to B7 fandom...a little. About 6 years ago, I was "the madblonde" mentioned here on this post . I believe I did succeed in getting in touch with Ms Short's son, but although he was very nice, nothing came of it. I'd give a lot to hear these songs again. Did you convert them to digital files? Any chance you'd consider sharing them with someone who has loved & remembered them for a long time, please? Thanks in any case. -Karen, aka TheMadBlonde

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi, Mad Blonde! Get in touch with me by email, which is listed on the contact page.

EricC said...

I put out a weekly Filk Podcast called FilkCast.

I got a rip of one of Linda's tapes, and went looking for information, which led me here. Thank you for the information. I have Ditties From The Edge Of The World digitized. Now I have to find more!

Thank you for the info!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Delighted to hear from you, Eric, and for my other readers here is the link to your filk blog: Are you on Twitter?

Linda has unfortunately passed away, so I cherish her recordings all the more. She has a friend, Judith Proctor, who I believe has all her music, including my personal one, which I burned and sent her. Perhaps Google and contact her?

EricC said...

Judith and I met on FB, and she sent me more music. Now I have to get time to listen to it.

I can be found on Twitter @FilkCast

Sue Bursztynski said...

Enjoy! And I’ve followed you on Twitter. Looking forward to listening to your podcasts. 🙂