Filk is a musical culture, genre, and community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom. The genre has been active since the early 1950s, and played primarily since the mid-1970s. An early mention of filk songs can be seen in the zine Day Star.
It's commonly described casually as "science-fiction folk music" -- and in fact, the word "filk" comes from a typo for "folk" in a 1950s essay -- but that falls short of the full range of music that's considered filk. The exact definition is controversial; like the definition of "fanfiction," fans do not agree on the boundaries of the genre.
It has been defined as the folk music of the science fiction community, and to a lesser extent, of fans in general. The Interfilk website has a good set of links to a variety of definitions.
Some definitions focus on the location of the activity ("filk is what happens in a filk circle"), and some focus on the content of the lyrics ("Filk includes songs about every science fiction or fantasy subject you could imagine: outer space (both real and fictional), books, movies, TV shows, dragons, magic, unicorns, vampires, and aliens of every sort. It also includes songs about things of interest to the Science Fiction and Fantasy community (usually referred to as 'fandom') and strongly resembles contemporary folk music").
Housefilks are social events at which there is some element of filking. I've been to housefilks where people just hang out and talk, with a few songs scattered here and there. Most housefilks, however, have a focus on making music, with more opportunity for casual socializing than is possible in a hectic filk convention atmosphere.
Gary McGath has offered the following definition: "filk music is a musical movement among fans of science fiction and fantasy fandom and closely related activities, emphasizing content which is related to the genre or its fans, and promoting broad participation. Filkers are people who participate in this movement."In her 1993 article about filking, Karen Ann Yost described how filk cassettes were becoming more professional sounding:
I... become a great fan of Julia Ecklar and collected two more cassettes, "Genesis" and "Divine Intervention." Some of the songs on Genesis are "The Escape" (inspired by the movie Escape From New York), "Daddy’s Little Girl" (from the Steven King novel Firestarter), and "For the Need of One" (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). The tape Divine Intervention includes a beautiful song inspired by the film Ladyhawke and "Crane Dance," from the movie, The Karate Kid.These two filk tapes illustrate the progression of filking. Genesis is the more traditional filk cassette; it was recorded on inexpensive, portable audio equipment with only guitars, drums, tambourines, and spoons as musical accompaniment. Divine Intervention, however, was recorded in a studio with full instrumentation provided by fifteen musicians. 
Filk in Different Forms
Filk songs were often printed in print zines which contained many other forms of fanworks, such as fiction, art, articles, and poetry. It can be difficult to identify a filk if it is not labeled as such, or is not accompanied by the phrase to the tune of, along with the song being utilized. Filks could easily be mistaken for poetry without these markers.
Filks are also performed by single fans, or groups of fans, as a presentation. Many con reports have descriptions of being in the presence of fans who filked for the entertainment of others.
Filks are also performed as a group activity at cons and other fan gatherings:
I've been attending filk circles for over twenty years, and it has become clear to me that the word has different meanings for different people, and different meanings in different contexts.
"I can't believe Gomer FILKED my song!" In this context, "filk" is used as a verb, and means that Gomer took the speaker's song and replaced the lyrics with different ones which scan to the original tune. This does NOT mean that all filk music is composed of parodies.
"We were FILKing last night until 4 a.m." "Filk" is again used as a verb, but in this case it basically means the act of participating in a musical jam session (either performing together, taking turns, or listening). Someone who does not perform music at all but prefers to just listen instead can still use the statement above. (...) Because of the confusing use of the word "filk" in contexts where the meaning changes, it's no wonder few people can agree on what "filk music" really is.
I become suspicious of people who are too aggressive about establishing an exact definition of filk music because their motivations are often based on the need to separate those who "belong" from those who don't. I've heard some people yearn for the old days, when people sang "real" filk. I've also heard people label various performers or groups who regularly attend filk conventions as being "non-filk", automatically categorizing them as outsiders until they agree to conform to certain rules.
If pressed for a definition, I'd say that filk music is anything performed at a filk circle, but generally tends to focus on topics related to science fiction, fantasy, technology and the media. My definition is based more on the type of songs I've heard performed at filk circles rather than expecting people IN the filk circle to conform to a particular definition.
As a filker, I welcome new voices, types of music and musical tastes. They may not be my own, but I enjoy the variety and infusion of "new blood". It keeps me from getting too complacent. :-) I also find that I'm almost always inspired to write more music or push myself to write different types of music after I attend a con at which I hear a wide variety of musical styles.
Some fans prefer to listen to filks as a sound recordings which were distributed by sites listed on interfilk.com Filk Dealers and Producers, Archived version or below at the Filk Production/Sales Companies section.
Filk Hall of Fame
Since 1995, the Filk Hall of Fame has honored contributions to the filk community. Inductees include Lissa Allcock (2002); Gary Anderson (1999); Karen & Poul Anderson (2003); Robert Asprin (1995); Barry & Sally Childs-Helton (2003); "Decadent" Dave Clement (1999); Juanita Coulson (1996); Chris "Keris" Croughton (2007); Rafe Culpin (1998); Gordon R. Dickson (2001); Katy Droege & Juliane Honisch (2004); Julia Ecklar (1996); Leslie Fish (1995); Clif Flynt (2005); Lee & Barry Gold (1997); Franklin Gunkelman (2006); Frank Hayes (2009); Judith & Dave Hayman (2005); Valerie Housden (2004); Bob Kanefsky (2003); Bob Laurent (1996); Spencer Love (1997); Steve Macdonald (2006); Chris "Minstrel" Malme (2003); Lois Mangan (2006); Kathy Mar (1996); Bill Maraschiello (1996); Gary McGath (2004); Cynthia McQuillin (1998); Margaret Middleton (1997); Erica Neely (2009); Gytha North (2001); Zander Nyrond (2000); Off-Centaur Publications (1995); Bob "Doc" & Anne Passovoy (2008); Bruce Pelz (2007); Dr. Jane Robinson (2000); Bill Roper (2000); Gretchen Roper (2006); Steve and Colleen Savitzky (2008); Kathleen Sloan (2007); Tom Smith (2005); Erwin "Filthy Pierre" Strauss (1998); Bill & Brenda Sutton (2001); Kirstin Tanger (Scholz) (2002); Alan Thiesen (2002); Mary Ellen Wessels (1999)
- Filk music is often characterized by
- Science-fiction- or fantasy-themed lyrics,
- Acoustic instruments, most commonly guitar,
- Creativity being as respected as musical talent,
- Community-participatory gatherings rather than concerts. (Concerts do exist, but are less common and less emphasized than informal, social filksings.)
- Tunes can be
- Traditional folk tunes with new sci-fi or high-tech words,
- Popular tunes with re-written lyrics of fannish topics,
- Poems or passages from written work set to music,
- Original tunes with lyrics addressing some aspect of fandom.
In some cases, a traditional or popular song is "adopted" by a filk community as a popular song at filksings, regardless of origin or authorial intent. These are generally referred to as "found filk" and examples include Weird Al Yankovic's "Yoda," Nigel Russell's "White Collar Holler," and the children's song "The Cat Came Back" (although for the latter, additional verses involving nuclear war or alien invasion are common).
Characteristics of a Filksing
Making music together builds and benefits all. Filk music is more than performance, songs, filk conventions, concerts, and open filks. It is all of these things and more. Filk is the community which builds and is built by them. We have room for a wide diversity of preference, focus, and style. Promoting that diversity, Interfilk works to construct networks and strengthen relationships for the benefit of the entire filk community.
The conventional filk physical distribution mediums of tapes and CDs are still not ideal for the economics of filk distribution. Many filkers with songs to share are often still left unheard outside of their regional conventions --- not everyone who writes a Killer Song can afford to spend thousands of dollars to publish an album, or fly around the world to conventions for the song to be heard. With the effective desolation of the convention anthology album genre in the early 1990s, at which the 'publication lag' for a convention album increased to an average of five years after the convention in question, there are presently few other effective means of getting that Killer Song heard throughout the filk community.
The Internet, conveniently, has quickly become an ideal medium for filk distribution: reasonably high quality recordings can be transmitted in minutes (or seconds, if you have an ISDN line or a direct connection). Anyone can make their songs available internationally just by plugging a microphone into their Macintosh (or on most of the newer Wintel boxes), and throwing it onto the Net. While there may be no effective means of collecting royalties yet, the fact that only a (literal) handful of filkers have made a gross profit large enough to cover lunch at McDonald's from their work renders this irrelevant for those filkers who just want to their music to be heard throughout the filk community. 
"1. Filk isn't all parody. It isn't even all "to the tune of." It may have started that way once upon a time, but these days there's a lot of SF/fantasy-themed original music. And then there's Bob Kanefsky, who made of career of parodying filk music -- does that make it second-order filk?"
From a 1987 handout:
"Like many areas of human activity, science fiction fandom (the community of SF enthusiasts who do something more about their
enthusiasm than just read or watch SF) has its own songs, that speak of things important to its people. Some catch the flavor of popular stories, like this one I wrote to the Star Wars theme music: "Star wars,/Ancient and far wars,/Alley and bar wars,/Not for the meek."
Others tell the whole plot of famous stories, like one by Randall Garrett on Asimov's "Caves of Steel," to the tune of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain." It's last verse is, "Then says Baley to the robot, with a grin:/'It was nice of you to overlook his sin./As a friend, I wouldn't trade you;/By the Asimov who made you,/You're a better man than I am, hunka tin.'" Puns are common.
Still others tell of the legendary exploits of the authors themselves, such as Gordon R. (Gordy) Dickson, author of the Dorsai stories, whose reputation for partyinq at SF conventions led colleague Ben Bova to ask the musical question (to the tune of "My Darling Clementine"): "How he does it/Is a myst'ry,/Always chipper, always bright;/Always eating, always drinking;/WHEN THE HELL DOES GORDY WRITE!?! (the last line shouted rather than sung).
Other songs are written in a more serious vein, like one by Leslie Fish about Apollo 11, to her own tune, whose refrain goes: "But the Eagle has landed./Tell your children when./Time won't drive us down to dust again." The more serious songs tend to have original tunes, while the more rollicking ones tend to use familiar tunes.
The currently-prevailing style of filksinging started in the Midwest. In this style, individuals take turns singing solos, with the audience at most joining in to clap, or on the chorus. The traditional Eastern style has been the mass singalong. But this has been in decline, as SF fandom generally has fragmented: it's hard to find astory or personality known to and enjoyed by most of a given crowd. Nowadays, Star Trek fandom, with its unifying theme, is the stronghold of this style.
Filk and Conventions
Filk takes place primarily at conventions, although house filks are also common. Filking overlaps with both SFF and media fandom, and is often included as part of those conventions. At conventions, filk usually occurs in the evening hours after regular convention programming has concluded, although many conventions will also offer filk panels, and conventions with a significant filk presence (such as FenCon) may also offer concerts.
Filking also has its own conventions and an annual awards ceremony (the Pegasus Awards), which are part of the Ohio Valley Filk Fest). Other major filk conventions include GAFilk, FilKONtario, and ConChord.
The filk community in Britain, while active for many years before in corners and stairwells, emerged blinking into the light after Follycon, the 1988 Eastercon, when Gytha North and a few other enthusiasts laid the foundations for what would, the following year, become the regular annual British Filk Convention. Peripatetic for its first decade or so, this has in recent years settled, first in Grantham in Lincolnshire, and then in Marks Tey, near Colchester in Essex. The Sams, awards presented at the convention and named after the filking anthem "Sam's Song," are justly coveted. Filk culture in Europe is strongest in Germany, where the FilkContinental convention has been held for many years in a number of impressive venues, including castles.
Filk is often grouped into categories in filkbooks. This list includes at least one example of each category.
- Science Fiction, Fandom (Born Again Trek),
- Science Fiction, Original (Dawson's Christian),
- Space Exploration (Hope Eyrie)
- Science Fact (The Designer, Out of a Clear Blue Sky, The Elements)
- Fantasy, Fandom (Moreta's Ride)
- Fantasy, Original (Threes),
- Fantasy, Fairy Tales/Mythology (I'll Be Your Victim, Death Danced at my Party, Captain Jack & the Mermaid)
- Computers/Internet (S-100 Bus),
- Filk tunes to classic poetry/songs (Jabberwocky-as-greensleeves, Kipling-by-Fish)
- Media, not specifically SF/F (Velveteen, Come Ye Droids, Desert Storm, A-Ramboing)
- Fannish Activities—cosplay, SCA, zinemaking, fanfic etc: (Isn't it the Pits, True Story, The Press, I Love Slash)
- Fannish interests: Gaming, comics (You Bash the Balrog, Lois Lane Boogie)
- (meta)Fandom, General or Specific (At the Worldcon, Gordy Dickson),
- Metafilk, General or Specific (Song At the Ready, Singing Banned from Argo),
- Reading/Literature (X Libris, Baby Got Book)
- Creatures (Overflowin' Catbox Blues, Kraken, Monster Lullaby)
- Ballads of Daily Life (Song of the Middle Manager, Two Lawyers, Send It To The Moon)
Leslie Fish is famous for her original filk and her performances of these filks. She's written and performed hundreds of filksongs, and set to music many of Kipling's poems, which are sung in fannish settings. Other well-known filk writers or performers include Mercedes Lackey, Tom Smith, Frank Hayes, Julie Ecklar, Jeff and Maya Bonhoff, Dr. Jane Robinson, Seanan McGuire, Bob Kanefsky, Jordin Kare, Meg Davis, Kathy Mar, Bill and Brenda Sutton, Dr. Mary Crowell, Roberta Rogow, Jane Mailander, and Brooke Lunderville.
Julia Ecklar is another famous fan and filker who recorded numerous filk albums in the early 1980s, including Minus Ten and Counting, Horse-Tamer's Daughter, and Genesis. Many of her songs were used for songvids in the '80s and '90s, especially by Caren Parnes and Mary Van Deusen.
The NESFA (New England Science Fiction Association) Hymnal, first published in 1976, had over 150 songs about various aspects of fandom, including 17 songs about Tolkien's works and seven about Star Trek.
Diane Duane's licensed Star Trek novel, The Wounded Sky (Pocket Books, 1983), includes several scenes in the U.S.S. Enterprise's recreation room, one of which quotes a Star Trek filk song based on John Denver's Calypso.Well-known and popular filksongs include:
- Fish's "Banned From Argo," a parody with an original tune, about Star Trek characters who have partied so hard on shore leave they've been banned from the planet
- "You Bash the Balrog" by Lee Gold, to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda," about a party of adventurers in a Dungeons and Dragons-esque setting
- "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Hobbit?", with variable verses and no known origin
- the fannish version of "Old Time Religion," , originated by Victor Anderson, with several hundred verses devoted to various deities of history, myth, fiction and occasionally science, often with new ones made up on the spot
- "Velveteen" by Kathy Mar, about the story "The Velveteen Rabbit," winner of the 1991 Pegasus Award for best love song
- Jordin Kare's "Fire in the Sky" about space exploration, with a verse added in 1986 to mourn the Challenger shuttle crash
- Gregory Baker's Zaphod Beeblebrox and Me
Filksongs that have appeared in songvids
- Temper of Revenge
- Weary World
- Terminus Est
- Needs of the One
- Survivor's Song
- Born Again Trek here
- 39 Julia Ecklar fanvids on YouTube by Mary Van Deusen
- Many others
Filk collections on tape or CD
- Alive and Filking
- Come Filking
- Down to Earth, also a zine
- Dragon's Jedi Filk Tapes
- Frank Hayes Live! (1991)
- Live from New York
- Mind the Stopgap
- No Sheep Aloud
- One Filk, Two Filk, Old Filk, New Filk
- Rat Mastersongs
- Recycled Rogow
- Scaring the Sheep
- Sing More Songs of SETI
- Some Dreams Are Worth Having (also as zine)
- Wackademia (1989)
Filk songbooks as zines
- Blake's Seven Christmas Filksongbook
- Blake's Seven Christmas Filksongs
- The Colors of Love (1977, slash)
- Crystal Memories
- Drunken Rabble Project (gen)
- Fan-tastic (1981, gen)
- The Federation Troopers' Glee Club Filk Book (1995)
- Filk from a Developing Country
- Filthy Pierre's Microfilk
- Friends & Strangers, Near & Far
- The George Lincoln Prichard Memorial Songbook & Taxidermy Guide
- Holmesian Limericks & A Sherlock Sing-a-Long
- Howlin' All the Time!
- If I Had a Filksong
- I Feel a Filksong Coming On
- I've Got Trek In My Heart
- Kantele: A Filksing Fanzine (1978-)
- Trek Side Story filking supplement in each issue of Kiron III (1989-91)
- Musical Chas
- N.E.S.F.A. Hymnal
- Rec-Room Rhymes
- Sing a Song of Trekkin' (1979)
- Songs of the Seven (1988)
- Strawberry Filks Forever
- Star Trek Songs and Ballads
- This Side of Parodize
- Ye Olde M*T Songee Booke
- Xenofilkia (1988-present, gen)
Filk Production/Sales Companies
- Off Centaur Publications, later Firebird Arts & Music
- Wail Songs
- Dandelion Digital
- Pegasus Music
- Random Factors
- Southern Fried Filk
- Quicksilver Fantasies
- Thor Records
- Dodeka Records
- DAG Productions
- Unlikely Publications
- Prometheus Music
- Filk, at Wikipedia
- filk @ FanWorksFinder.Com
- The Pegasus Awards
- The Virtual Filksing
- history of filk and personal testimonies at Filk Archive
- Filk Archive
- Debbie's Filk FAQ
- The Filk Book Index
- Filk yeah filk Wordpress site and Tumblr
- Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. Identity and authenticity in the filk community. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.
- The Great Raven - Remember When
- An Egocentric and Convoluted History of Early "Filk" and Filking by Lee Gold (1997)
- Links To Darn Near All the Filk on the Web. By Subject. By Maureen (use archived link below for dead links)
- Beccon publications publish numerous Filk books
- Redemption '05 Filking Info Sheet, Archived version
- A Brief History of (British) Filk by Rhodri James, Archived version
- Copyright and Filk Songs, archive link page one, archive link page two, archive link page three, archive link page four, March 2001 discussion at rec.arts.sf.written
- In a Fine Filk, Archived version (1993)
- , Archived version
- All Of The Filkers Are Singing by Bjo Trimble (1982)
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filk#History, accessed October 20, 2008
- http://www.filking.net/filkfaq/what-is-filk/, accessed September 29, 2008.
- http://www.massfilc.org/filkdefined.html, accessed April 26, 2009
- What Is Filk? By Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Archived version
- http://www.mcgath.com/filkdef.html, accessed April 25, 2009
- "In A Fine Filk", Strange Worlds, 1993, accessed December 30, 2009
- What Is Filk? By Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Archived version
- Filk Music -- What IS It?, Archived version
- The Virtual Filksing: Frequently Asked Questions, Archived version
- Calling filkers, Archived version
- Banned From Argo lyrics Accessed November 17, 2008.
- That Real Old Time Religion, a an extensive but not complete collection of verses. accessed November 17, 2008.
- WayBack Link.