Filk is where music and science-fiction-and-fantasy geekery collide. It's more than a musical genre—it's a bona fide subculture. Like some ragtag band of reluctant heroes from a sword-and-sorcery novel, filkers challenge the evil of corporate anonymity and suppression of the human creative impulse. Or, in other words, they dress up as steampunk characters, fairies, pirates, and such to sing about their favorite movies, books, and cartoons. This endeavor undoubtedly strikes many as absurd—and most filkers would happily agree. Breaking the restraints of the imagination and embracing one's true self, no matter how silly or socially-questionable that self may be, is the whole point.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the genre began as a mistake, a typo actually, in an essay from the 1950s, reportedly called "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music." From here, small clusters of science fiction enthusiasts began to gather with instruments to sing about the stories they admired. For some time, they were outcasts even among outcasts, too geeky even for the geeks. However, over the decades, the Filk community has grown alongside the rising mainstream popularity of science fiction and fantasy; so too has the talent of the performers.
Its core manifesto and philosophical current running through its embraced silliness is largely summed up by Kathleen Sloan's song "Take it Back," which is widely considered an anthem of Filk and, in fact, the official opening song of FilKONtario.
Welcome to our diverse little clan
Don’t worry you’re not good enough, come grow with us
We’ll help you with your melody, we’ll catch you if you trip and fall
We’ll celebrate the art you choose to share with the world! (we will)
Take it back! Take it back!
Take back the right to sing and play
It will fill your heart, it will feed your soul
When you take back the right to sing and play!
Each year, Filkers are paid official tribute at the Pegasus Awards, doled out at the Ohio Valley Filk Fest to the highest achievers in the genre. Awards categories have included Best Alien Song, Best Fairytale Song, and Best Gaming Song, along with more pedestrian ones like Best Writer/Composer and Best Adapted Song. 2016 saw Play It With Moxie win for Best Performer and Batya Wittenberg win Best Filk Song with "Creatures of Dream."
Happily, the awards don’t appear to have hurt the collective, non-competitive spirit of the community. Top acts—touring, recording musicians—play right alongside neophytes and hobbyists of varying proficiency.
Should you want to let your own Filk flag fly, start your journey with these 6 Filkers.
Canada's Heather Dale mixes folk, blues, and jazz in musical interpretations of ancient legends and tales. Her song "Mordred's Lullaby," a monster YouTube hit, is not only a good introduction to Dale's music, but Filk in general. She also has a lot to say to artists about finding a successful niche for their work.
Some of Dale's songs, such as "The Green Knight," are pretty straightforward homages to the Middle Ages. Others, such as "Medusa," use more modern sounds to tell their story. Still others, such as "Changeling Child," are downright mystical.
Ookla the Mok
Rand Bellavia and Adam English make up the face-melting duo that is Ookla the Mok. Ookla’s style is somewhat different from what’s generally found in Filk. Rather than the American folk and Celtic styling common to the genre, Ookla's music ranges from hard rock to a loose sound I can only describe as "Phish-like," with plenty of humor, irreverence, and an affectionate mockery of the nerd culture to which they proudly belong.
A key to her power is her ability to find the emotional core of imaginary stories and distill it into song, using realms of fancy to evoke real-life truths. She's a true filker's filker.
Still, Mason's more than capable singing about Saturday morning cartoons or delving into even geekier territory with Scoobythulu—a song that finally answers the age-old question of what would happen if Scooby Doo fought Cthulhu.
Mason's music has been featured on the Nerdist, SyFy, Dr. Demento, Time magazine's “Techland.”
Vixy & Tony
Michelle "Vixy" Dockrey, Tony Fabris, Betsy Tinney, and Sunnie Larsen make up Seattle's Vixy and Tony, winners of three Pegasus Awards (including A Little Bit of Rock and Roll award for "Six String Love").
With the notable exception of "Six String Love," Vixy and Tony gravitate towards crisp, clean acoustic songs. Somehow, the tightness of their performances never detracts from the vital playfulness of their sound. Basically, they're still fun, as can be seen in Firefly-inspired "Mal's Song."
This is a good time to hop on the Vixy & Tony bandwagon. They just released a new album titled We Are Who We Are.
Filk is by no means a purely U.S.-based phenomenon. Europe has an active scene, as well, as does the UK, including London's Playing Rapunzel.
Composed of Marilisa Valtazanou and Mich Sampson, Playing Rapunzel is notable for a more formal, "classical" sound than that found among most filkers. This sound is no doubt informed by Sampson's background as a music teacher and Musical and Choral Director. In 2016, they were nominated for a Pegasus Award for Best Filk Song with "Someone on the Internet is Wrong."