Tuesday, February 17, 2015

to filk or not to filk

I was a little nervous when I found the history of filk music - the folk music of SF fandom - by Gary McGath. I had something to do with a stretch of that history, and I wondered what he'd say. I had not been interviewed for or contacted about the writing of this.

I'm pleased to say, it's pretty good, although he mangles my name. Nobody calls me Dave, at least not to my face.

McGath is fundamentally accurate about the origin of The Westerfilk Collection and the allocation of tasks in compiling it. Perhaps more emphasis could have been placed on the fact that Jordin Kare was the initiator and principal force behind the project. Jordin had come to UC Berkeley from MIT in the fall of 1978 and quickly joined local fannish and filking circles. He was used to organized Massachusetts filking, where they had things like the NESFA Hymnal, a full-scale songbook, and when he found that we were disorganized, yet had songs known not in Massachusetts, he formed the idea of a west-coast songbook. He proposed this at a local housefilk and asked if anybody wanted to help. Teri Lee and I volunteered, and that's how we became the three editors of the Westerfilk. There turned out not to be time to compile it before the 1979 Westercon in San Francisco, though we did produce some songsheets then, and it came out the following year.

McGath is also correct that the Westerfilk was, in essence, the first work issued by Off Centaur Publications, before Off Centaur actually existed. Teri (who became the central figure of the company) and Jordin carried on directly from the initiative of the Westerfilk. Although I did some work for Off Centaur, mostly research on legal rights to songs, I was not directly involved because I had gone off to grad school in Seattle. Catherine Cook, who was a partner in Off Centaur, had also helped with the Westerfilk, though she was not credited as an editor. As the most easily available person who was actually a musician, which none of us three were (Jordin later learned the guitar, but he hadn't picked that up yet), Cathy was recruited by Teri to help with music notation and to provide complex things like guitar chordings.

McGath mentions Jeff Rogers, noting that he was not a partner, but he was literally a central figure. It's true, as McGath says, that Off Centaur specialized in studio recordings, but it made live tapes too. As the house recording engineer, Jeff was typically in the middle of the song circle at every event, crouched over his equipment, headphones on his ears and blissful smile on his face as he listened to the quality of the audio feed.

Regarding the breakup of Off Centaur some years later, about which McGath is reticent, all I should say is that I was at one time friends, often close friends, with just about everyone involved, and I'm just sorry it happened. I was long gone by the time of the breakup, but I had smelled something sulfurous in the air some years earlier, which was the main reason I quit filking.

The other reason I quit was a growing dismay with what we, by which I'm including myself, had done to filking. I don't think McGath gives sufficient emphasis to the suddenness and the dramatic intensity with which filking changed from a thing that fans occasionally did spontaneously at parties, to an organized, full-scale sub-fandom with its own clubs, fanzines, cons, and BNFs. In the Bay Area it happened, I think, in the fall of 1978. At a filk in the back room of a party at Octocon in Santa Rosa, somebody said: wouldn't it be great if we got together regularly?, a sign-up sheet was passed around, and the next thing I knew I got a postcard inviting me to a housefilk at Jeff Rogers' apartment in Berkeley. It was here that I met the local filkers I didn't already know through SF fandom, and it was at these early sessions that the Westerfilk was hatched.

What's weird is that simultaneously the same thing was going on elsewhere: in LA, with which we quickly established diplomatic relations, in various places in the midwest, and others that we didn't even yet know about, and Margaret Middleton's Kantele was hitting the mailboxes. It was a flood. Housefilks, all-night con filks (the late-night character of con filking was never planned, it grew spontaneously from filks starting in mid-evening and just not stopping), and then whole cons devoted just to filking. Off Centaur's, and then others', tapes and songbooks met a crying need.

For a while it seemed great. Then I noticed that it was eating itself. I got into filking because I enjoyed belting out old favorites. Every once in a while, sure, a new song or two, but that wasn't the emphasis. But when people filked constantly, they got tired of the old songs. The throughput of filking began moving at an astonishing rate. People craved new songs, and then after a few rounds they'd discard them for the next batch. Running out of standard tunes to write parody lyrics to, they began attacking any new serious songs that the songwriters in filk presented. As a once-in-a-while thing, this was funny, but it got ridiculous.

For me, the final straw came the first time a neo came across Leslie Fish's "Banned from Argo" in the Westerfilk, correctly perceived that this was a great song, and asked for it at a filk, only to be met by groans and cries of "ugh, not that again." "Banned from Argo" was, at least at the time, the best filksong ever. If you're tired of that, you're filking too much. (If you don't know it and are curious, here's a recording, slightly abridged. Although the lyrics are ST:TOS-allusive, the video clips are from Firefly, which work surprisingly well.)

I took my own advice and decamped before I too became a jaded zombie. As the car then sped on at top gear without me, I judged it too late to catch up later. Whenever any filkers ask me to return, which happens about once a decade, I ask them, "Are people still tired of 'Banned from Argo'?" And nothing has changed.

More on a later post: about Leslie Fish, and about Bardic Circles.


  1. (Lee Gold) Whenever I run a filk track at a convention, I always schedule "Banned from Argo" and always find someone willing to sing it -- and always find an audience (some neos who have heard of it but never heard it, some oldtimers who fondly remember it) eager to hear it (as well as people eager to tell me they won't show up then -- and I calmly tell them that they don't have to). This was true at Loscon 2019.

    We also sang many old filksongs (some old when Barry and I joined LASFS in the mid-1960s) as well as some new ones.

    1. That's encouraging, Lee. Thank you.

    2. The Classics are the best! When I went to Chambanacon last year they started with familiar songs and it just kept up like that. When I go to filks I want *that* spirit. So when I tell people "it's koombaya for geeks" I'm not lying. LOL.

  2. I'm not tired of Banned from Argo. The hubby and I saw a reference to a real place named Argo and made jokes the other day watching TV.

    But we also don't play it constantly, because that is how you get tired of things. =^*^= I tried to learn to play it,but hahahaha. No dice.

  3. Actually, no, for the most part, people aren't tired of Banned From Argo any more. We don't want to hear it at least once every night of every filk at every single con and living room, but once in a while, and especially if there's new people who haven't heard it, it's great fun.

    A lot of the newer stuff is great fun too.

  4. Surely "Kantele" was Clif Flynt?

    1. It is my understanding that Clif Flynt helped with the early issues of Kantele, but the principal editor was Margaret Middleton, and she is the person it was firmly associated with.

  5. The problem with Banned from Argo is that it's funny. After the 20th or 30th time you have heard the same joke, it's simply tedious. Nobody ever gets tired of Hope Eyrie.

    When folks sing the older songs in the circle, it's generally the more serious ones, Hope Eyrie, Fire in the Sky, The Phoenix...

    1. That makes sense, but as I wrote in the post, "If you're tired of ["Argo"], you're filking too much."