On Filk

This #WordFameWednesday I wish to honor my beloved friend, sometime travel companion, and partner in mischief, Juliana Bird, King’s Bard (in Exile) of the East. [ETA: I have corrected the pronouns below from the original writing of this post.]

If I have taught Bird anything about what it means to be a bard, I’m delighted. But I know what she’s they’ve taught me. They’ve modeled for me what it means to survive adversity, do hard work on oneself, and come out of it still connected to joy, authenticity, and childlike wonder. They have shown me how rapidly it is possible to grow in musicianship and art when it is done with zeal and passion and deep effort.

On top of everything else, they have shown me the artisanship of creating truly great filk.

I have often had an uneasy relationship with filk (specifically, the art of writing new original lyrics to an immediately-recognizable modern popular song) as a bard.* Too often, I’ve heard people lump together all original work created by SCA bards as “filk”, which I still find dismissive as a creator of SCA folk music. I enjoy a good filk as much as the next person, but I’m mindful that they are largely humorous and often considered “silly”.

But Bird’s filk (a prime example is “In Pennsic’s World”, based on “Part of Your World” from Disney’s Little Mermaid) sits in a beautiful liminal space where it is light and silly, and yet it also communicates emotions and observes situations in the way that great songwriting does at its best. A great filk is mindful of every detail of the shape, imagery, themes, and rhyme scheme of the source song, and refashions that song in a way that honors (and gently tweaks) what worked best in the original. The humor in such a filk comes not only from how the original is being bent in new directions, but in the imagery and rhymes the filker uses. For example, their imagining Pennsic from the descriptions they’ve had from other people:

What would I give if I could live out on the ‘Gheti?
Heard that it’s hot—heard that a LOT—don’t really care.
For I do dare, tough it out there, I’m prepared to get really sweaty!
Silk and linen, men and women, ready to play…

I’ve seen them perform this piece a number of times, including one night at Pennsic itself, when they disappeared into the song and touched me, and herself, more deeply than they ever had. They didn’t worry that what they were doing was “just a filk”, but lost themself in the story she was telling in that moment. That was when I really understood that filk is art. Each art form has its own rules, and some art forms may command more respect in certain circles than others, but with passion and thought and creativity and care, it is possible to craft a true gem in any form the artist chooses.

I don’t imagine I will ever be able to filk the way Bird does. But if I have lately indulged in filk more than is my custom, it’s because I’ve seen a brilliant artist and performer show that filk can be not only funny but inspirational if one fully commits to it.

[UPDATE February 5, 2021: To my tremendous amusement, Bird and I have had conversations since this post was written, expressing that now we hold each other in extremely high regard among the ranks of SCA filk writers. It just scratches a different itch from original songwriting. It’s its own special kind of puzzle, which I’ve come to greatly enjoy. I have actually been awarded my Sovereign’s Cypher for the toil I put into these. And if it has caused consternation among those who take SCA performance art “seriously”–and I know for a fact that it has–I don’t have it in me to be troubled by it. I continue to pour myself into historically researched work, and original music that speaks truths I believe need to be spoken. The only reason I think one should ever refrain from creating or sharing a piece of art–however somber or frivolous–is because the art, in the opinion of the artist, doesn’t create enough value to justify the effort.]



* The term “filk” comes from the Science Fiction and fandom communities, where it has a much broader meaning than is generally used within the SCA, and more specifically within the Bardic community. From the perspective of the broader Filk community, pretty much all the original work composed by bards would be considered filk–songs created by the community about our shared interest. However, the more narrow definition I’m discussing, of writing new words to an existing tune, is the one most SCA bards use.

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