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Filking: A Fun Facet of Fandom

By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

Several years ago, I encountered the word "filk" while browsing the Internet in search of information on song parodies. Writing new lyrics to pre-existing songs is something I'd enjoyed doing occasionally throughout my childhood, but at the age of 25, I became obsessed with the practice. It was then that I learned about filk, which is a genre of music defined not by style but by topic, much like Christmas music. Filk music, whose name derived from a typo of the word "folk," is deeply rooted in science fiction and fantasy. While not all filk focuses on those topics, it is largely an outgrowth of fan culture. Filk can be both original and set to the tunes of pre-existing songs, and songs about Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are particularly prevalent.

Indeed, Harry Potter fandom has spawned an extensive subgenre known as Wrock, or wizard rock. The genesis of Wrock is generally attributed to the band Harry and the Potters, a duo that recorded several amusing songs inspired by the series in 2000. Since then, hundreds of bands have sprung up around J. K. Rowling's books, encompassing all sorts of musical styles. Following the lead of Harry and the Potters, many of these bands are named after a character, followed by an "and the...". The second part of the name may be a play on that character's last name, as in Draco and the Malfoys, or something related to that character, such as Tonks and the Aurors. By this point, there are few characters in the Potterverse who are not attached to a Wrock band.

Thanks to the Internet, it's much easier for filk to find an audience, as musicians can simply upload their songs to YouTube or MySpace, leaving them there for anyone to enjoy. These musicians may also perform locally, while many take their songs to filk circles, where those immersed in the crafting of filk music sing and listen to each other's works. Filk circles are generally set up in such a way that everyone is invited to bring instruments and join in accompanying the performer, provided that he or she doesn't mind. The tone of a filk circle is meant to be welcoming and encouraging, allowing each person the chance for self-expression.

While I have written a few original filk songs, the vast majority of my filk falls under the category of parody. Although the word "parody" is much more familiar to most people, I prefer the word "filk". For one thing, it places what I have written in the context of a fan community and a particular musical movement. Although my skills as a performer are limited, I like the idea of being a part of this wider group. For another, the word "parody" generally carries a certain expectation of humor. While some of my songs are written with the intent to amuse, many are not; I tend to veer toward the more contemplative end of things with my lyrics.

Although I have written upwards of 300 filk songs on a variety of topics, I've focused the majority of my attention upon the television show LOST, about which I have 235 songs to date, most from the perspective of one or several characters. One of these days, I hope to record some of them, but my primary intention is that whoever stumbles upon my lyrics online will have fun singing them around the house as my parents and I have. Of course, one downside to this is that a familiarity with the original song is needed in order to sing it, but if the song is available online, I provide a link. Some of the music I like is rather obscure, and I'd love it if I were able to introduce others to great musicians whose songs were previously unfamiliar to them.

There are several methods by which I begin to write a filk song. I keep a file on my computer full of the titles of songs that I would like to filk. Whenever I listen to music, I keep an ear out, listening for a snippet of lyrics that sparks a connection with one of my favorite fictional worlds. In some cases it's simply a matter of similar words or sounds that gets me started. For instance, when I was listening to the cowboy song Git Along Little Dogies, the word "dogies" reminded me of Dogen, the mysterious Temple master in LOST's sixth season, and a filk song sprang out of that. Similarly, the title of Chuck Berry's classic Johnny B. Goode made me think of the season five admonition to Kate - then a child who referred to herself as Katie - to "be good".

At other times, I look primarily for thematic connections. For instance, after listening to the Irish Rovers' version of the tragic ballad The Wind That Shakes the Corn, I sought out a subject involving a speaker who felt responsible for the death of a loved one - sadly, not all that hard to come by in LOST. Meanwhile, Styx's Come Sail Away instantly reminded me of Desmond's decision to enter a sailing race around the world to win the approval of his would-be father-in-law.

Of course, I don't always start with the song. I went through an especially intense period of filking during the final season of LOST, and with each new episode, there were particular scenes that I wanted to put into lyrical form, so I then needed to find an appropriate vehicle. The same thing sometimes happened while I was rewatching episodes as well. For instance, I wanted to write a song about Miles explaining the code phrase "Tell my sister that I love her" in the fourth season episode Confirmed Dead, so I settled upon Tony Orlando and Dawn's Knock Three Times, a song about secret codes. I was itching to write something from Jacob's perspective in the wake of Across the Sea, the episode that delves most deeply into his backstory, and because the episode is about his relationship with his brother, who is never given a name, I appropriated America's A Horse With No Name.

Particularly because my filking efforts leave the singing up to the reader, at least for now, I try to be very diligent about scansion so that my words measure up very easily to the words in the original song. Occasionally I'll allow a syllable or two to be out of place, but I try to make them as easy to follow as possible. In addition to retaining the rhythm and rhyme scheme, I often attempt to use many of the same end rhymes, as well as inserting similar-sounding words into the middle of lines to provide more of a marker.

Even so, getting the rhythm right can be tricky. If you are reading a set of lyrics set to a pre-existing song and are struggling to sing along without it sounding awkward, it's possible that the writer just wasn't that careful, but one thing you can try is making a little chart of how the stresses fall in the original song. For instance, here are a couple of lines from the Eagles' Take It to the Limit: "But the dreams I've seen lately / keep on turning out and burning out and turning out the sa-ame." That breaks down roughly to "u u S u S S u / u u S u u u S u u u S u u u S-u," with "u" meaning "unstressed" and "S" meaning "stressed". Plug it into the new set of lyrics, bearing in mind that one syllable in speech will not always equal one syllable in a song - though the first time through, it may be easiest to assume a one-to-one ratio. In most of my filk songs, that's what I have unless the original song does otherwise, as in the last syllable in the example above. Rewriting or typing the lyrics with each stressed syllable capitalized may be of help if you don't mind putting in a little extra time. For my corresponding song, from the perspective of the Man in Black addressing his rival, the result would look like this: "Well, you REAL-ly MUST HATE me. / I im-PLORE and you ig-NORE me. I ab-HOR this old ex-CHA-ange." This can also be very helpful on the writing end, especially if you're new to penning parody lyrics.

Filk is largely a labor of love, a way for fans to creatively engage with their favorite fantastical worlds and characters. It's fun to write and to sing, and while it's rarely a profitable exercise from a monetary point of view, especially for those who write parody lyrics since there are potential copyright issues involved in trying to sell derivative work, people don't filk for financial gain. As Fred tells his uncle Ebenezer in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, "though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" He was referring, of course, to Christmas at the time, and I'll certainly agree with him there. But filk has also done me good and will continue to do so. If you've a musical mind and a passion for fictional realms, why not give it a try?

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