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Song and Sci-Fi

Cushing Library accepting filk material for collection

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 00:01


William Guerra


Jenna Rabel

Cassette tapes with the music of Leslie Fish, author and well-known filk artist, are among filk material collected in the early stages by Cushing Library.

In an effort to expand its prestigious science fiction literature archives, Cushing Library has begun to seek out donations for a “filk” collection, a task that comes with a unique set
of obstacles.

“Filk” refers to a type of fan music rooted in science fiction culture that has since branched out into other genres. Filk songs can either be original or can be created by altering or parodying an existing song with new lyrics. Weird Al Yankovic is considered a filk artist by many, as are the wizard-rock band Harry and
the Potters.

“It’s a person and guitar and a lot of times they write existing songs with science fiction or fantasy themes,” said Lauren Schiller, Cushing Library specialist. “Or they write a song about their cat or they write a song about
their computer.”

Jeremy Brett, curator for the Cushing Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection, said the term originated from a 1950s article on the influence of science fiction on folk music, wherein the author accidently combined the terms and ended up with “filk.”

“It started out in the science fiction community, so it’s tied in a lot of ways to that,” Brett said. “But there are plenty of other communities that have taken
to that.”

The filk community today is well established with nationwide conventions, a hall of fame in Ontario, and the Ohio Valley Filk Fest Pegasus awards. But despite filk’s growing influence in music culture, Schiller said she has only found Bowling Green State University in Ohio to include filk in a list of material they collect.

Brett said while very few institutions in the world collect filk specifically, the material is often collected accidentally.

“There are institutions that will collect it as something else.” Brett said. “For instance, before Lauren [Schiller] came to us, we had a few examples of filk in the collection, but it was just given to us as part of a larger collection, so we didn’t sit down and say ‘let’s start collecting filk’ as a collecting strategy.”

Archiving filk material has proven to be a daunting task for Cushing as donations begin to roll in. Many of the song books contain little to no reference as to what melody the lyrics should be sung, Brett said. Sometimes the songwriter writes lyrics to a folk melody the audience is expected to know even though such melodies vary geographically and with time.

Brett said that some tunes in the Cushing collection are specific to filking conventions and may contain songs that simply say, “You should know this tune”.

Schiller said in addition to relabeling the filk material in collections already at Cushing, the library sent out word through online filk communities and received donations from individuals.

Another obstacle to collecting filk is the quality of the material. Some of the music was properly stored and taken care of before donation, while others had physically degraded before coming to Cushing.

Even the definition of filk is still debated among the filk community.

Brett said “Filk” as a term is misleading as it implies music in the folk genre when many filkers delve into a variety of genres, including rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop.

Jasmina Kuenzli, junior history major, stumbled upon wizarding rock during a previous research project on J.K. Rowling, and said she would like to one day see that subculture of filk in Cushing.

“Anything associated with Harry Potter, like stuff from a Very Potter Musical or stuff associated with Harry and the Potters, because they kind of started the genre of wizarding rock, they were the pioneers of that genre,” Kuenzli said. “That type of stuff would be really cool to see.”

As for the musicians themselves, they range from authors who make a career out of science fiction literature to novice musicians who jam out with lyrics about Norse Mythology on the weekends.

Schiller said musicians like Weird Al also get caught up in the mix as “found filkers “— musicians who don’t necessarily consider themselves filkers, but are considered so by the filking community.

At the end of the day, Schiller said filk music is a nebulous term.

“It’s really anything,” Schiller said. “I’ve heard one person describe it as ‘the music of our people,’ where our people are the ones that go to science fiction conventions.”


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