What is filking? Sit in on a circle
May 18, 2001 By Mark Saal for the Standard Examiner, Ogden Utah
Although the Three Weird Sisters have several scheduled filk performances at this year's CONduit, the real filking will take place after hours, long after the convention has closed up for the day.
That's when Brenda Sutton, Gwen Knighton, Teresa Gibson Powell and other filkers will gather together in what they call a "filk circle" to enjoy one another's music.
The filk circle is open to anyone and is nothing more than a chance for filk fans to sit around and sing songs to one another.
These filk circles are almost identical to the way filking evolved in the first place.
Sutton said the filk circle got its start in the late 1940s or early 1950s at science fiction conventions. lat at night, after convention hours, bored SF fans would sit around and sing songs. As with many such good ideas, it also probably involved, "people who may have had a few beers under their belt," according to Sutton.
"These are very witty, intelligent people, and they read. A lot," she said. "It was very natural for them to start to make up lyrics about topics they'd read in their favorite books, throwing them into tunes they know."
Filking was born of this parodying of existing songs with new lyrics, although today it often involves original music as well.
According to legend, the name filk came about in the 1960s at a convention, when someone typo-ed "filk" instead of "folk" on a convention program, and the name stuck.
Traditionally, filk circles were held in hallways or hotel rooms.
They'd sing until somebody would bang on the wall," Sutton said.
When convention organizers realized these filking audiences were clogging the hallways, Sutton says, they figured they might as well give filkers a room and began booking space for them.
Knighton says the filking tradition offers everyone a chance to sing, no matter how "unmusical."
"We're very tolerant of all skill levels," she said. "That's the great thing about filk. Filk is a loving atmosphere for musicians of any skill level. I've heard people get up in filk circles who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and be applauded because they got up to sing."
Knighton, who has studied folk music and musicology for a number of years, says the filk community is the only real, living folk tradition she's encountered in the modern world. Filkers follow one another around and learn songs by ear. They're not afraid to change the words or the tune. She said that's the way folk music was before it became big business.
"Our own national anthem is based on an 18th Century drinking song," Knighton said. "Francis Scott Key was extremely upset that the tune people began singing his poem to was a barroom drinking song. There is a long tradition of putting new words to old music. Look at 'Greensleeves.' That's straight out of pre-10th century musical tradition. This is what folk is all about."
The filk circle in Salt Lake City probably won't start until after 10 p.m., but after that, there's no telling how long it will go, according to Sutton.
"I'm sure we'll sing the sunshine up," she said.
You can reach reporter Mark Saal at (801) 625-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org