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

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.        


I wrote in Textual Poachers that filk might start to change in character as certain artists began to record and sell their music and in the process, developing songs that require specific kinds of musical skills to perform. Two decades later, has this turned out to be the case?


Musicians in filk today are on a continuum from neos who are just beginning to play through amateurs to people who play professionally and semi-professionally.  I think the crux of your question deals with the then-perceived threat that more professional players would run beginners and amateurs out of filk.  Filk has changed by expanding to include high-level players, and it’s the heart and spirit of the community that allows beginners who can barely play three chords to perform in the same room and be given the same respect and support as musicians who regularly gig.  Filk is about so much more than the music—it’s about the community, and about creating an environment where everybody can grow as a creative being.  It’s like the music is the excuse we use to find like-minded souls who will help us grow.


Filk began as amateur music, and that element is still very much present, especially when you consider the meaning of amateur—someone who loves something.  As more experienced musicians joined the community, there have been times when the community felt that perhaps these players might not leave room for the less experienced, but this hasn’t come to pass.  The experienced musicians who value the community have stayed and helped to support others to grow; experienced players who dismissed less advanced musicians self-selected out of the filk circle.  My husband and I were (to the best of our knowledge) the first to release a professional studio-recorded filk tape (i.e., not recorded by a filk cottage industry studio) and some people thought we had upped the ante too much.  But many others expressed appreciation and we obviously didn’t get kicked out of the community.


So today you still hear neos, pros, and everybody in between in the filk circle.  The filk cottage industry and the great improvement in the quality of home recording equipment has meant that anybody who wants to release an album can.  Some albums are very homespun, while others are polished and professional and sell in other markets, but they all sell.  Some people enjoy high-quality studio albums because it allows the musician to fully express his or her musical vision.  Other people prefer to hear their filk live in the filk room or in concert, and if they listen to recorded filk, they prefer recordings of live music.  So yes—improved recording equipment and the presence of professional musicians has changed filk to some extent, but parts of it have also stayed the same.  It’s changed through expansion, so what was there when Textual Poachers was written is still there; new things (high-quality musicianship, better recording technology) have just been added.  The very high quality of professional musicianship and recording going on in filk today is best represented by long-standing filkers Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff and their Star Wars parody (which they wrote, performed, and recorded) of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapodsy,” “Midichlorian Rhapsody.”

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.