Segment 9 – Filk

This week we’re straying far towards the pop culture end of the rad religion spectrum, with a little known subculture called filk. It’s so much more than science fiction folk music. Hear us chat about it here:

The songs were ‘The Phoenix‘ by Julia Ecklar, and ‘Silver Bullet Blues‘ by Michael Longcor.

Filking began in the 1950s, at about the same time that science fiction (SF) and fantasy conventions began happening. These are huge events where thousands of SF fans rent out a hotel in some specific city in the US – these things always begin in the US – and hold talks, screenings, workshops, signings, drinking games, and so on. Musically-minded fans would occasionally bring along a guitar and sit in a corner of the foyer, casually plucking strings, trading tunes, and eventually scribbling down some new lyrics inspired by the convention around them. Thus the phenomenon was born – and became known as filk after a fan once misspelt folksinging.

Filking really caught on in the SF community – Isaac Asimov even wrote a few filks. It has grown and grown and, like everything, now has a decent-sized internet footprint. But the heart of filk, the true filk tradition, is tied inextricably to SF conventions, and that is where filk really belongs and continues to thrive. Because a recorded track will only ever capture half of the filk experience – filking is intensely social. It is about the midnight-to-dawn filk circle, where large groups of fans sit around, pass around guitars, yell out suggestions, sing along together, workshop parody lyrics, and so on. And it is about the community. The best definition for filk music, in fact, is simply the music that filkers play. It may have started with a distinctly folk feel – and that does continue – but other influences are welcomed; likewise, topics of songs range from historical figures, to Shakespeare, to Star Wars, to Discworld, to computing languages and beyond. Filkers also oscillate between original pieces and revue-like SF parodies of mainstream songs (please, please watch ‘LOL Together‘).

Now to justify filk’s inclusion on Rad Religion, I evoked the scholarly distinction between substantivist and functionalist definitions of religion. Very briefly, substantivist definitions say that religions contain something unique in their substance, that is, they deal with concepts that other things do not: be they supernatural, divine, holy, and so on. But early Buddhism and Confucianism were both effectively atheistic (they both nodded towards the supernatural but told their followers not to concern themselves too much with it) and surely we want to include these in our notion of religion? Enter functionalist definitions, which say that religions do things (that is, they have functions) that other things do not. These can include community building, the elaboration of symbols, the construction of systems of meaning, providing sources of identity, and so on. As you can imagine, under these definitions, a lot of things start to look like religions! Political ideologies like communism, community fervour for sports teams, the myths and rituals associated with ANZAC here in Australia – all of these and more can be treated as religions, or at the very least as quasi-religious.

And it is in this sense that filkers, too, can be seen as functioning in ways akin to a religion. As one commentator put it, recent scholars of Western society are exploring “popular culture’s sacred spaces, the way it creates its own web of meaning, its own rituals, myths and communities.” What is a filk circle if not a semi-sacred space where ritual-like rules apply, a place for open communication and creative exploration? Are not SF and fantasy novels functioning as guiding mythologies for these communal practices?

Having said that, here is a list of filk songs dealing with religion in the more traditional sense of the word. Here’s a pretty famous filk dealing with ‘Old Time Religion.’

Head to Interfilk for info on filk that is far more extensive than what I’ve given here. And check out the website for the Pegasus Awards – the Grammys of filk – for lists of important artists and the best filk songs from the last 30 years.

Until next time, think about all the things you do, all the communities that you’re involved in – how many of those operate quasi-religiously? Or perhaps you think all this functionalist stuff I’m spouting is absolute garbage? Leave a comment and tell me so!


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