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.

If I have taught Bird anything about what it means to be a bard, I’m delighted. But I know what she’s taught me. She’s 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. She has 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, she has 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, her imagining Pennsic from the descriptions she’s 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 her perform this piece a number of times, including one night at Pennsic itself, when she disappeared into the song and touched me, and herself, more deeply than she ever had. She didn’t worry that what she was doing was “just a filk”, but lost herself 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.

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