The Spirit of Filk

"Don't quit your day job." How often have you heard something like that when you try to sing? The advice is, of course, quite sound in most cases; most of us have voices which are -- well, less than professional. But there is something worse than singing badly; and that's being musically passive when you love music. The gentle, well-meant sarcasms about people's personal musical efforts often push them into that sort of passivity.

Filk music is defined as the music of science fiction and fantasy fandom. But more important than its subject matter is its attitude toward music: that people should make their own music, even if they aren't great at it. Filk is typically sung at circles at science fiction conventions or in people's homes. Everyone can take a turn singing (though it isn't required). Many people sing their own songs, using existing tunes or creating their own. Often a song will be heard once, because a particular circumstance inspired it, and then be left in a growing looseleaf folder with other songs.

The point of filk isn't that all singers are created equal. There are excellent writers and performers, and we all get special pleasure from listening to them. But listening by itself isn't enough. If you love music, you are bound to have your own musical thoughts and to want to give them voice. And when we make our own music and take the time to listen to each other's songs, we become better listeners.

The fact is, most people seldom really listen to music. As Jonathan Turner put it eloquently in his "Second-Hand Songs," with most radio music, "You are not meant to listen, you are just meant to hear." By singing yourself, producing a few chords on a guitar, or doing a bit of percussion, and by risking the reaction of others to the music you make, you make it real in yourself, giving more meaning to the music you hear. And if you have the time and inclination to make yourself better musically, to learn more, to make your voice more tolerable or even pleasing, so much the better.

Most filk songs are simply for fun, and that's fine. But occasionally we hear a song which really expresses something personal, and to which we have a strong personal response. Sometimes we hear songs which simply give a new and surprising perspective on a book or movie which we're familiar with. Sometimes a song tells us a bit about a book or movie which we aren't familiar with, and gives us reason to check it out. ("The Dark Is Rising," performed by Musical Chairs, did this for me, giving me a lead to Susan Cooper's very interesting series of novels.)

Music has always been a major part of my life; but since I've been involved in filk, it has been a much more active part than before, and has led to friendships from California to Germany. The voices that I've heard may not always have been the best; but they've had something to say, and they wanted to say it musically. For me, that's a good starting point.

Copyright 2000 by Gary McGath
Last updated May 14, 2002

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