What the Filk?: An Interview with Sally Childs-Helton (Part One)

This is the third in an ongoing series of interviews running across this year showcasing new and emerging work in fandom and fandom studies. I figured it was time to bring this blog back to its roots.


Sally and Barry Childs-Helton, filkers

Sally and Barry Childs-Helton, filkers


In my 1992 book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, I wrote about three primarily modes of fan expression -- fan fiction, vidding, and filking. Of the three, the least research has been done to date, at least in fandom studies, about filking or for that matter, other genres of fan music such as Wizard Rock and Nerdcore. I gather that the concept of participatory culture is being taken up in various ways among researchers working on music education. I was thus surprised last year when I received an email from Sally Childs-Helton, one of the many filkers I corresponded with several decades ago when I was pulling together that chapter. She shared with me an article she had recently published about the contemporary filking scene for The Journal of Fandom Studies, and shared with me some reflections on how she was picking up her analysis where mine left off:

I used your chapter in Textual Poachers as my jumping-off point to see where filk has gone in the intervening years, and specifically to see what impact internet culture has had on the tradition.  I didn’t set out specifically to look at generational changes, but this came out strongly as a theme in my fieldwork and secondary research.  As one of your informants for the filk chapter, it also made sense for me to start there, and because there has been almost no work done on filk in 20+ years. Your chapter was published just as online culture was starting to take off.  I feel like my article documents filk at another transitional point, when Boomers are starting to age out of filk and Millennials are moving to other forms of geek and nerd music that do not value face-to-face interaction in the same way.  It was extremely useful for me personally and professionally to do this research because I deal with participatory media in higher education on a daily basis.  There are younger scholars doing excellent research on the relationships that Millennials have to geek and nerd and other fannish musics, and I look forward to reading their work.  It’s also spurred me on to do continued research about filk because the tradition offers a lot of insight into generational changes in preferences regarding how music is created and consumed, as well as the interplay of online and face-to-face communities.

Coming out of that correspondence, I wanted to share with my readers some of her insights about filk then and now and about why as someone who has been performing filk for most of her life she is just now integrating it into her professional life as an ethnomusicologist.

Filk is often described as the “folk music” of the fan community. In what ways is this an accurate or inaccurate description?


Filk, as it is now practiced, grew out of the simultaneous growth of the Folk Music Revival and science fiction and fantasy conventions (SF/F cons) in the 1950s and 1960s, though there was earlier informal singing done from song sheets (in the style of college song sing-alongs) at the earliest cons.  Science fiction fans who were also folk music fans began bringing their guitars to SF/F cons and sharing folk music with each other.  Soon folk tunes sprouted fannish lyrics, often parodic in nature.  As filk grew, people began writing original words and music, and filk began to spread beyond the original genre of folk music into all popular music genres.  So filk’s foundation is in the Folk Music Revival, though it has grown beyond the folk genre to include almost every popular music form and other genres as well.  Still, many filk songs are folk-based, or rely heavily on the structure of folk songs so they may be easily learned so everyone can participate. 


It is also a folk music in that it was traditionally shared (and still is today) in small, face-to-face groups.  Filkers most value the filk circle, in which everyone is welcome to perform, with the expectation that the main performer be joined (especially on choruses) by everyone in the room, while other people may add other instrumental parts, shtick (often choreographed hand or body movements), and even dancing.  Performers take turns leading songs, but the line between performer and audience is often eradicated, creating a communal music event.


Further, filk is a folk music in that it was traditionally spread by word-of-mouth or orally/aurally, with people learning songs from each other.  Early filkers also wrote down song texts in notebooks and recorded performances on cassette recorders to more easily learn songs.  Filk fanzines were created to spread filk lyrics, lyric books (often called filk hymnals) were printed and sold, and small press filk studios began releasing live recordings of music performed at cons in filk rooms, and later studio-produced recordings of individual filkers.  Now filkers share everything online using all forms of social media, but many still keep paper notebooks of songs, or have transferred them to tablet music software for ease of transport and access.  So filk began being shared, like all folk music, aurally and orally.  This is still happening, long after the advent of very inexpensive recording equipment, a cottage industry of filk recordings, and the many forms of sharing offered by the internet.


Early SF/F fandom was very much a folk activity in that it was face-to-face activity in small groups.  Cons were run by the fans themselves.  Filk still exists at almost exclusively fan-run cons, both general SF/F cons and filk cons.  As commercial cons developed around franchises (e.g. Star Trek, Dr. Who), there was no room for filk, though room was made for other fannish activities created during the earliest days of fandom, including costuming (now called cosplay), and in costume contests and hall costuming.  The role of music at these commercial cons has taken on a more commercial direction with the development of geek and nerd music (more on this later).  So filk is a folk activity in that it almost exclusively exists today at fan-run SF/F cons and is rarely found at commercial cons.


Can you describe the context(s) where filk music is most often performed? As scholars are more and more interested in what conditions may encourage cultural and social participation, what lessons might we take away from the structures that sustain the filk sing as a space of participatory music making?


As mentioned above, the traditional and most valued venue for filk music is in the filk room.  In the early days, this was often any empty hotel space a small group of proto-filkers could commandeer, including service hallways, stairwells, unlocked function rooms, and even service elevators.  Filkers began asking for their own programming space at cons, and the contemporary filk room was born.  Filkers often inhabit these rooms all night long, singing until breakfast.  When the group gets too large, or the music in the room takes a topical or mood turn some people don’t like, they simply leave and find another room or an empty hallway and continue singing.


As filk grew it began attracting more and more musicians, including professional and semi-professional players.  These people were soon asked to do concerts at general fan-run cons, and now most fan-run general and filk cons have programming tracks dedicated to filk concerts.  It is also common for filkers to provide the “half-time” entertainment during masquerade contests while the judges are out deliberating.  These concerts opened up the idea of filk to fans who have other fannish interests—gaming, costuming, literature, manga, anime, movie and TV shows, art, etc.—and even though these fans do not often enter a filk room, they provide enthusiastic audiences for filk performers.  Interestingly, many of the participatory behaviors found in the filk room carry over into the concert venue, and audience members are expected to sing along on choruses, engage in shtick, and dance.  There is more of a performer/audience divide, but still there is a participatory atmosphere.  Granted, audiences sing along and dance at rock concerts as well, providing a participatory element, but in the filk room the level of participation often crosses into real-time group co-creation.


Filking is also found at house filks in areas where there are enough filkers for people to gather occasionally to share music and community.  These have much in common with all forms of music house parties across many genres and around the world where people gather to share music, friendship, and food and drink.  We forget that until well into the 20th century all music was heard live because recorded music formats and radio and TV did not exist or were unaffordable by most.  There are places in the world yet today where this is the case.  There are also house concerts where someone will host a local or regional filker, or one passing through town.  Often admission is charged, or the hat is passed, to help pay the musician and to offset the costs of travel and hosting the musician.  House concerts are now common performance venues for indie musicians; for the cousins of filkers, geek and nerd musicians; and for other musicians with niche audiences.


As mentioned, filkers most value face-to-face venues for music making because it allows for full community participation that cannot yet be recreated online.  Yet filkers are also doing live concerts online and posting performances to YouTube.  There is still a strong market for small press filk recordings (CDs are still selling well), and more filkers are making their music available as downloads either for free or for sale.  While most filkers prefer their music live, these online and recorded media formats are considered better than not hearing filk music at all.


I have been pondering why cosplay, another form of fan creativity from the earliest days of SF/F fandom, has gone so mainstream that it is highly popular at fan-run and commercial cons; the SYFY channel even created the show Cosplay Mêlée.  Filk, on the other hand, will never see a TV show called Filk-Off.  The reason, I believe, is context.  While both costume and song creation can happen in private, both need audiences to appreciate the product.  Cosplayers can exhibit their creations by simply walking around the halls of a con, whereas filkers need dedicated space conducive to performing and auditing music.  Granted, I have seen mini-concerts set up near registration tables at cons to entertain people waiting in line.  But a crowded hotel hallway is no place for a lone filker to perform so that his or her music can be appreciated.  Thus the filk room and concert hall remain the idealized spaces and structures for participatory music making.           


Filk can be described as a subcultural practice, but some are arguing that many fannish and nerdish pursuits have become absolutely mainstream. Does fandom still need to define its identity as a community through developing distinctive forms of music and other creative expression?


Many scholars studying fandoms say everybody’s a fan of something (Go Cubs!).  With popular and social medias now so deeply entwined in people’s daily lives, I would agree that fannish and nerdish activities have become mainstream (witness the popularity of TV shows like Big Bang Theory, which celebrate nerd culture).  You can walk into any big box store and walk out with everything from t-shirts to guitars to duct tape to women’s underwear adorned with current popular media characters.  So in this way fannish culture has become totally normalized and commercialized.


But I believe this normalization has been an even greater motivation for people to continue creating their own distinctive and unique—not mass-produced—creative expressions based in the characters and stories they find most meaningful.  From the beginning of popular culture people have been finding ways to interact at a very personal level with fictional worlds, characters, and stories that resonate with them.  In the late 1800s people were writing music based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  Fans of early science fiction pulp magazines wrote fan fiction.  Grade school students remade the first Indiana Jones movie using consumer-grade video cameras.  So fans have been “poaching” for a very long time, and aren’t likely to stop.  There is a huge difference in the person who buys a cheap Darth Vader costume to wear to a Halloween party and the fan who spends his senior year of high school hand-building a costume and working an after-school job to afford the materials.


For me, this illustrates that there are distinct levels of fandom and commitment and engagement, as well as a need (or not) for creative expression.  Some fans are happy to attend a screening of Rogue One wearing a t-shirt they bought, while others have spent months creating a costume.  Some people will discuss the movie at the water cooler the next day, while others will write fan fiction or filk songs, or create paintings.  So some fans interact with a text mostly as consumers, while others interact at a very personal and creative level.  I’m not saying that the person who buys the t-shirt isn’t creative—she or he may be a master chef or woodworker—but that some fans will engage in deeply creative activities because a certain world or character or story is personally meaningful.  For some people, buying the t-shirt isn’t personally or creatively satisfying.  It’s the difference between a commercially produced and a self-made item.  It’s also the difference between the old fannish camps that still exist today and are labeled as the FIAWOLers (Fandom is a Way of Life) and the FIJAGDH faction (Fandom is Just a Goddamned Hobby).


I believe that certain people in SF/F fandom (almost always FIAWOLers) need to define their personal identities through activities specifically in community with other like-minded people.  They may be costumers, filkers, LARPers, gamers, fan fiction writers, etc., and they most often form communities both face-to-face and online.  The strongest communities seem to have a large face-to-face component, though the online activities of the community are important binders between face-to-face events.  It is easier for practitioners of some forms of fannish creativity to form satisfying communities online, like fan fiction writers, who can easily share and receive feedback quickly and broadly.  Other fannish activities are easier to appreciate in person.  For example, cosplayers want to see a costume up close, feel the material, see how it was constructed, and watch it move on the wearer.  This is impossible to do online.  The aesthetics of filk make it another community that needs to come together in person from time to time.


For some people, the opportunities for having their creative output appreciated are strongest in a particular fandom.  For example, my singer/songwriter husband had been writing intricate songs with dense and highly literate lyrics for years before we found SF/F fandom and filking.  He had been performing in coffee houses and other singer/songwriter venues, and the lyrics were going right over almost everyone’s heads.  The first time he performed in a filk circle every person got it, and there were mutterings of “Who IS this guy?  Where did he come from?”  Clearly, he had found his audience, the people who immediately understood and appreciated his music, even when it was not overtly on science fiction themes.


I believe most people need to express themselves creatively in some way, be it playing music, creating art, writing, cooking, styling hair, writing code, doing surgery, restoring historic homes, or the myriad ways in which human beings are creative.  We all need to find a community that appreciates our creativity, and for some people it’s the SF/F community.  Fandom doesn’t need to express itself through distinctive forms of music and other creative expressions, but individual people DO need to express themselves, and various fannish subcultures provide them with an appreciative and supportive community.    


Filk is an expansive category both musically and in terms of its content, so who determines whether a particular song constitutes filk and is appropriate to sing at such a gathering?


On the whole, filkers are an incredibly democratic, open-minded, and kind group, so the most common definition of filk is “anything you hear in a filk room.”  Often the lyrics have to do with SF/F and technological topics, but there are just as many lyrics that do not.  I’ve heard songs on topics as dissimilar as having a miscarriage to the contents of the singer’s kitchen junk drawer.  The simple answer to what determines if it’s filk or not is context and intent.  My favorite example is David Bowie’s tune “Space Oddity.”  Bowie never wrote it with the intention of it being filk; I doubt the man ever heard the word.  When astronaut Chris Hadfield performed “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station in 2013, he was certainly not performing it as filk.  But when it’s performed by a filker in the filk room or in a filk concert, it’s filk of a particular sort—found filk.  Many tunes from the geek and nerd music genre are also performed in the filk room and are considered filk in that context. 


Some professional and semi-professional musicians who also filk will do the same tunes during bar or coffee house gigs that they do in the filk room.  For example, the filk standard “Black Davie’s Ride” (performed here at a filk convention) is often performed by filkers who also play Celtic and Renaissance fair venues, where audiences hear a classic highwayman song.  When it’s performed in a filk setting, the context is much richer because listeners know the songwriter, that she passed away much too young, and they remember her and her other filk songs.  The context and intent are totally different at a Celtic fair versus the filk room. 


You are a veteran filk performer and composer, yet you’ve only recently started incorporating this knowledge and experience into your scholarship. Why have you kept these two aspects of your life separate for so long and what’s changed now?


When I was doing my M.A. and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and folklore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the general thinking was that researchers should not study their own cultures or subcultures because it created a lack of objectivity; researchers could miss vital things because they took them for granted, even though it was acknowledged that it also gave a person greater access to deeper understanding.  We were encouraged to study instead cultures or subcultures that were different from our own to ensure greater objectivity.  So part of my reticence came from the professional philosophy that existed when I was doing my graduate work. 


The more personal reason boiled down to professional ethics and integrity.  My husband and I did not enter the filk community as researchers but as members and practitioners.  As we were embraced by the filk community, I didn’t want people to think that I was there with the purpose of doing research or using them in any way.  We were starting to meet and make good friends from all over the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, and I was not willing to taint these relationships with any misunderstanding about why I was participating in the community.  The filk community is a very special and supportive place where people can grow as musicians and people.  The filk circle, in particular, is for many filkers almost sacred space where you come with good intentions, to offer the best you have, to help make a high-quality creative environment for everyone, and to offer support. 


I came into filk already a full-blown musician and performer at a time when many filkers were beginning or intermediate-level players.  For people who are at the beginning of their musical journeys, the filk room must be a safe place.  I was not willing to create even a whiff of an appearance that I would be breaking the trust of the filk circle in any way.  Less experienced musicians take huge personal risks every time they perform; it takes a lot of courage, especially for people who have had a lifetime of being told they aren’t musical or they aren’t creative.  As we first entered the community, I was also doing a lot of accompanying in therapeutic environments, in particular accompanying a dance and movement therapy class.  I quickly recognized the therapeutic aspects of the filk room, though it is much more than that.  So my professional integrity stopped me from actively studying filk, thought I will admit it was impossible to turn off my ethnomusicologist’s brain that was analyzing what I was seeing and hearing.  You hear about social scientists who “go native;” I ended up doing the opposite, being a native who “went academic.”  In 2003 my husband and I were inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame.  We didn’t realize we were to give speeches, so we spoke extemporaneously.  The speeches were recorded and transcribed as "This is My Tribe," which documents our relationship with the filk community, and why I was so reticent to do anything to break the community’s trust.


What motivated me to start writing about filk was an invitation to submit a paper for a special issue on music for the Journal of Fandom Studies.  I had been reading in popular culture and fandom studies all along, and was aware that fandom studies considers it a strength to conduct research as an insider; indeed, the idea of the “acafan” has been around for quite some while.  I’ve been in the filk community for over 30 years now and people know me as a mentor and supporter who often does workshops on various aspects of musicianship at cons.  I’ve earned the community’s trust and it knows how much I value it.  Over the past years the larger filk community has had a continuing discussion about how to attract younger generations, Millennials in particular, and what to do about the graying of filkdom as Baby Boomers are starting to age out.  The time seemed right for me to contribute both to fandom studies and to the filk community by conducting research on filk almost 25 years after your documentation of filk in Textual Poachers (for which I was an informant).  I let the community know what I was doing through online forums and at cons, and filkers who responded to my questionnaire and who gave me interviews were eager to participate.  So far I have only received positive comments about my research, and I intend to continue it with the community’s support.  There is much more to be said about research from the insider’s and outsider’s point-of-view, but I felt I finally reached a point where using my academic skills to study filk would be useful to the community, and I could do it without breaking its trust.        


Sally Childs-Helton, Ph.D., is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, and archivist; she holds the rank of Professor at Butler University.  Away from university duties, she is active as a musician and facilitator who conducts drumming and improvisation workshops; performs with her husband Barry, eclectic Celtic band Wild Mercy, and the Thin Air improvising quartet; and accompanies choruses, dance, and theater.  She has been active in the filk community since 1984, was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame in 2003, and has won several Pegasus Awards for Excellence in Filking.  Her current music research interests include musical fandoms, generational aspects of fandoms, and artistic sign language as musical expression.