An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" and Filking

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Fandom: filk
Dates: March 1997
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An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" and Filking is by Lee Gold.

This essay originally appeared in the ConChord 12 songbook and has been archived online.

The entire essay is here: An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early Filk andFilking - by Lee Gold, Archived version.

Some Topic Discussed


In the first place, "filk song" was a typographical error. That was obvious to everybody who read the essay in whose title it appeared. Besides it had no meaning. Who ever heard of a filk?

Since the essay appeared in an amateur publication circulated among science fiction fans, though, there was only one thing to do. Rather than waste a phrase like "filk song," something must be created to which the name could be applied. Now, some eight years later, it means "a topical song borrowing the melody and structure of a well-known folk or popular song." And there are hundreds of them.

Eventually I got around to asking older fans about just what fan had originally typoed "folk song" into "filk song" in just what "amateur publication." The culprit turned out to be Lee Jacobs, a LArea fan who had died shortly before I entered fandom [in 1967]. Back in the 50s, he'd submitted an essay to SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Society) entitled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music" about supposed science fiction incidents in folk song, which was a straight-faced analysis of a number of thoroughly filthy "dirty songs," taking various metaphors in them as if they were meant literally.

Wrai Ballard, the Official Editor of SAPS, rejected the essay on the grounds that the songs would get the APA in trouble with the Post Office, by violating the laws against mailing pornography. But he did notice that LeeJ's title had an interest- ing typo: FILK SONG. He told his friends about it. And he had a lot of friends.

Lee Jacobs eventually published his essay elsewhere (this time getting the title spelled accurately), but by that time most of the people in organized SF fandom had heard about "filk songs." They decided, as Karen Anderson wrote, to apply the term filk to the already long-standing tradition of SF/fannish songs and music.

Most pre-cassette recorder filk falls into two basic categories: 1) Melodies written for poems from professional fantasy and science fiction (with lyrics by such authors as Myers, Tolkien and Heinlein), and 2) Lyrics written by to well-known melodies (folk songs, show tunes, Gilbert & Sullivan, popular songs).

A number of such lyrics appeared in professionally published F&SF including Tolkien's "Troll Song" (to the tune of "The Fox Is on the Town-O") and Heinlein's song in "The Roads Must Roll" (to the tune of "The Caissons Go Rolling Along").

Other lyrics were published in fanzines, both by pros and fans -- the distinction wasn't as great in those days. Shapiro's 1960 filkbook included "Pore Stf is Dead" by Damon Knight and "The Author's Ordeal" by Isaac Asimov, as well as a number of pieces by Charles Tanner and Randall Garrett summarizing various F&SF books' plots, inspired by Newman Levy's poems devoted to plays and operas. (Levy wrote the lyrics of "Thais"; I have no idea who wrote the tune. I reprinted one of Tanner's filksongs in Xenofilkia #1. Garrett's filksongs appear in THE BEST OF RANDALL GARRETT and the trade paperback anthologies TAKEOFF! and TAKEOFF TOO!)

Early incidents of what we'd now call filk are chronicled in Harry Warner, Jr.'s excellent histories of fandom: ALL OUR YESTERDAYS and A WEALTH OF FABLE. Warner notes that "'Filksong' was a term that had not yet been invented, but songs were sung [at the 1940 Worldcon] that consisted of new lyrics with a science fiction theme set to familiar tunes." Filthy Pierre aka Erwin Strauss gave me photocopies of two sheets of these songs that he'd picked up, and I reprinted them in Xenofilkia #18 and #19. They were by John Bristol, a pseudonym of Jack Speer. The one that puzzles me is a short piece which is said to be to "the obvious tune." I'll print it here just in case someone can recognize it.

We'll build a tempo-ship
And we'll take a little trip,
And watch a million years go by.

The 1947 Worldcon had what Warner says was "Perhaps the first of the big drunken worldcon the Hadley [Publishing Co.] site....Fans gaped in disbelief at [John] Campbell sitting on the floor, helping Hubert Rogers and Benson Dooling to sing a variety of bawdy ditties." The next night saw Mary Mair singing "a vocal setting of Sturgeon's 'Thunder and Roses' [and] Chandler Davis playing his own compositions on the piano; [Joe] Kennedy, Fred Burgess, George Fox and Algis Budrys singing as a quartet a ditty about Amazing ("We shout to the skies the praises of Shaver,/ We wish that he were a moldy cadaver"); and Milton Rothman playing the piano."

At the 1952 Worldcon, "everyone joined in 'Glory, How We Hate Ray Bradbury' (to the tune of 'John Brown's Body' during the ball." (Also known as "The Bradbury Hate Song," this was written by Ray Beam, Jack Natkin, Lewis Forbes, Jerry Hunter and probably others. It appeared in Shapiro's STF & FSY SONGBOOK and was later reprinted in a Pelz Filksong Manual.)

A year later, in 1953, the Worldcon's last event was "Gordy Dickson...with his guitar and science fiction ballads." And the year after that, in 1954, the Worldcon program included an operetta adapted from Ray Bradbury's "A Scent of Sarsaparilla," narrated by Anthony Boucher. At the 1955 Worldcon, a fan choir sang a number of Damon Knight's songs written to Richard Rodgers' tunes.

And in 1959, the Worldcon saw everyone present who had ever sold anything to John Campbell gather together to sing "Oh, No, John," written by Randall Garrett to the tune of the folksong of the same name. Randall later wrote, "We sang the song to him, and he just stood there, looking superior, which he had every right to do, and when it was over, he looked around at all of us, and said, 'Thank you for your stories.'" (This filksong appeared in the 1960 SAPS mailing and was reprinted in a Pelz Filksong Manual with the note that "A fifth verse, added by Karen Anderson, is apparently lost." This verse finally appeared in FILKER UP #1.)

Fantasy poetry, of course, dates from earliest times. Science-fiction has not seemed such a good subject for poetic flights, but efforts have been made by fans (some worthy), and among famous poets scientistic pieces are found -- notable in Tennyson and Kipling -- tho some with stfnal themes are actually anti-science.

Later Boskones held Filksong Contests, whose entries were photocopied at the convention into Filksong Books distributed in the filking room. The Boskone 14 Filksong Book was edited by Joe Ross with the assistance of Lisa Raskind, and so probably were the uncredited filksong books at the next two Boskones. Boskone 14's Filksong Book had 27 pages; 15's had 57 pages; 16's had 32 pages and an announce- ment of "the forthcoming NESFA HYMNAL." I don't know how long this tradition of instant Boskone filkbooks continued, but it eventually died out and I have not heard of its rebirth.

In 1976, Ruth Berman and Ken Nahigian edited THE MIDDLE-EARTH SONGBOOK, over a hundred pages of songs set in the world of JRR Tolkien, including (with her permission) Marian Zimmer Bradley's melodies for Tolkien's own songs (recently recorded by Annwn -- at long last).

THE HOPSFA HYMNAL came out about the same time. Its editors printed all the F&SF songs they could find, often neglecting such minor issues as proofreading, copyright, and obtaining authors' permission. THE NEW YORK CONSPIRACY SONGBOOK used similar tactics. Both eventually encountered legal difficulties.

In fact, it was a longstanding fanzine tradition to feel free to reprint short pieces of copyrighted material without consulting the authors -- as long as the editor made sure to credit them and to send them a copy. Hal Shapiro's 1960 collection included pieces from many copyrighted F&SF works. But it appeared at a time when a Worldcon had less than a thousand members. As fandom grew, its publications took on more commercial and legal significance.

While many mourn the passing of much of the old informality of fandom,

we feel that the custom of copying filksongs without consulting their originators is no longer a viable practice, if ever it was. We have sought permission to use all songs of known authorship whose authors were still living, regardless of whether the songs were legally covered by copyright....Many writers have had the opportunity to correct errors that have crept into their songs over the years.

In 1978, Filthy Pierre aka Erwin Strauss printed FILTHY PIERRE'S MICRO FILK, over four hundred filksongs, most of them fairly old, in print so tiny that the only way to sing from it was to retype the songs.