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Singing with a Local Filk Group by ARTalk

[by Susan Shepherd '11] At MIT, I discovered that my "unusual" hobbies weren't all that unusual after all.

[by Susan Shepherd ’11]

For me, one of the greatest things about MIT is the culture. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a peculiar mix of scientific and technology-related jargon, crazy ideas (“These habanero peppers aren’t nearly hot enough.” “I agree. What do you say to refining the capsaicin to get a really spicy dish?” “Actually…that would work. Okay, let’s do it!”), and a lot of creativity from people who enjoy doing very offbeat things.

Better yet, since MIT has a lot of sub-communities, it’s easy for you to learn about neat stuff through the grapevine. If you’re interested in film-making, you might take a class in it. Later you might hear from a fellow classmate about this interesting club, the Lecture Series Committee, which shows films every weekend for a relatively low price. While hanging out at LSC, you might hear about an upcoming play…

In short, there is a definite geometric progression which takes place. The larger the number of neat things you get involved with, the more things you hear about and have the chance to particupate in. And that’s how I discovered MASSFILC—a group of people, some of them college-age, many older (including a fair number of MIT alumni) who get together once a month to sing science fiction and fantasy folk music, called “filk” for short.

Filk music can be awfully hard to define. Strictly speaking, it is music played by and for members of the science fiction fandom—the people who read hard sf books, who dressed up for the midnight showings of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and who show up to conventions to meet others who share their interests. More broadly, crazy or offbeat music with a nerdy, fantastic or science fiction theme can qualify. Jonathan Coulton’s “Still Alive,” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “The Saga Begins,” and Leslie Fish’s “Hope Eyrie” can all count as filk, depending on who you ask.

I really found out about filk music through my addiction to fantasy and science fiction books. If you’re familiar with Tolkien’s work, or Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, then you know that many authors include poems or songs in their novels. When I was younger, I put some of these to music. It was just a hobby for me, and I assumed I was the only person who would be interested in that kind of activity. Like bowmaking, or raising chickens, or cultivating irises, I assumed that most of my peers just wouldn’t be interested.

Then I got to MIT, and discovered that those “unusual” hobbies weren’t all that unusual after all. I encountered more people who had memorized poems and songs from those and other books. I also started collecting filk music. Pretty quickly, I had collected songs like “Kill the Zombies” (a helpful song about what to do when the zombie apocalypse comes) by Songs to Wear Pants To, “Merlin,” a song about the legendary wizard, sung by Kathy Mar, and the love song “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)” by the Klein Four.

Recently, after I’d learned that several of my friends were also were fans of filk music, I attended Boskone, an annual science fiction convention held locally. There, I wandered into a meeting of filk singers singing “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” and just like that, I was hooked.

One of the wonderful things about the filk meetings is that you aren’t required to sing—but anyone can, if they wish to. Song requests are also popular. If you enjoy watching “Babylon Five” but don’t know any filk songs on that subject, you can ask around and someone else will probably start singing “Five Years” (lyrics can be found here, on the author’s website). Some songs, like “Pirate,” mentioned above, have choruses that are a treat to join in on. And if you enjoy guitar or the flute or the drums, instruments are also welcome.

The subject matter is nearly unique to the genre. A typical meeting may feature one or more songs promoting space exploration, several about various aspects of nerd culture—for example, “Talk Like A Pirate Day” is about the holiday and those who celebrate it, and “Tech Support” includes a hilarious word-for-word transcript of an actual call—and numerous parodies.

Not all the songs at meetings have to do with science fiction, however. “Word of God” by Catherine Faber is about evolution and the scientific method. “A Boy and His Frog” was written to commemorate Jim Henson’s work; it is sung from the point of view of Kermit in mourning. (It’s better than it sounds.) Traditional songs and folk songs are also welcome; I’ve heard “White Squall” and “Siuil a Run” at meetings, and in truth, as long as you’re interested in a song, no one’s going to be annoyed at you for sharing it.

Filking isn’t the most common pastime, I’m sure, although I do suspect that the number of fans who have memorized “The Man They Call Jayne,” “The Birthday Dirge,” or “Aerlinn in Edhil o Imladris” is larger than we usually think. But I am glad to have learned about it, and gladder still to have found out in my sophomore year. This way, I know I and my friends can participate in the local meetings for years to come.

6 responses to “Singing with a Local Filk Group”

  1. Labib (?14) says:

    This is simply amazing. I remember the first time I read The Hobbit (Lord of the Rings prequel) I started singing the poems aloud before I even noticed. All these days I had considered it a strange activity I alone did and then this post came up.

    One more reason to try to get into MIT.

  2. Leila Kinney says:

    Speaking of Babylon 5, did you know that J. Michael Straczynski will be speaking at MIT on May 22nd?

    check it out: http://cms.mit.edu/juliusschwartz/index.html

  3. Here are a few video clips showing filk songs, if anyone is interested.

    Witnesses Waltz – about the space shuttle:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_GciXA-6Ag&NR=1

    Word of God, mentioned above:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-vDhYTlCNw&feature=channel_page

    Hope Eyrie, about the Apollo 11 moon landing:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXteSV8rBwY&feature=channel

    Enjoy!

  4. Gary McGath says:

    Thanks for saying such nice things about MASSFILC! I hope we’ll be seeing you regularly.

  5. (Found this via Gary McGath)

    Thank you for the kind words about filk. I hope you will understand if I offer one slight correction.

    “Hope Eyrie” was indeed recorded by (among others) Julia Ecklar, but was written by (and should be credited to) Leslie Fish, one of the pioneers of filk music. (She was part of the group that made the acknowledged first filk recording, an LP titled “Folk Songs for Folk Who Ain’t Even Been Yet.”)

    Also, you should be aware that this year the (US) Northeast Filk Convention (Concertino, when it’s hosted by MASSFILC) is in your area: June 19-21, 2009, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Worcester, MA. (I am not affiliated with MASSFILC or Concertino, but count good friends among both groups.) I hope we’ll see you and perhaps a few more filkers who didn’t know they were, there.

  6. Chris O'Shea says:

    Great article, thanks!
    I first found filk through a group singing from a tiny lyric sheet at a room party at a convention near Washington D.C. back in 1980 … and am proud to have helped with the first UK filk convention 21 years ago. There are many “house filks” held all over the US and Canada as well as in other countries, plus many major conventions have filk streams and there are many filk conventions held around the world. We have one main one each year in the UK (in February) and the Germans have just started having a second weekend convention this year (one in May, one at the end of September).
    There are many songbooks and CDs available as well as many online resources such as Filk Radio (http://www.filk.com/radio.html) and the Filk Archive (http://filkarchive.scrumpy.org/) but there are other sites dedicated to filk about work by particular authors (Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett, J.R.R.Tolkein etc.)

    Everyone is welcome and I hope to see you at one of the many conventions one day, and you don’t need to be an MIT alumnus to attend grin