by Lee Gold, Copyright March, 1997
This essay originally appeared in the ConChord 12 Songbook.

I found organized SF fandom in 1967 at Westercon XX.  Filksinging was a two hour
afternoon program item, with Bruce Pelz and Ted Johnstone singing out of Pelz's
FILKSONG MANUALS (recently republished in a one-volume version, $13 including
shipping and handling; contact Bruce Pelz at bep@mail.deltanet.com or 15931
Kalisher St., Granada Hills, CA 91344-3951).  Bruce and Ted sat at a table in the
front of the room, with Ted playing guitar.  They chose what songs to sing, and
audience members sang along if they felt like it.  There were songs from John Myers
Myers' Silverlock set to music and "The Orcs Marching Song" to the tune of "The
Ballad of Jesse James" and Tom Digby's "Little Teeny Eyes" about a very strange
computer -- and many, many others.

A month later I attended my first LASFS meeting with copies for sale of THE THIRD
FOUNDATION #76 (the fanzine's first issue), containing my first filksong:  "Oh,
What a Beautiful Martian."  One of the LASFSians who sang it that night was a
fellow named Barry Gold, whom I married two years later.

In turn, I bought Pelz's first three Filksong Manuals (published for the 1965, 1966
and 1967 Westercons).  A couple of years later, I bought his fourth Filksong Manual
-- and also an old fanzine, THE STF & FSY SONGBOOK, edited by Hal Shapiro, dated
2060 (which Pelz informed me had been brought out for the 1960 Worldcon).

A few years after that, Ted Johnstone sold me a copy of WEST BY ONE AND BY ONE, an
anthology of Baker Street Irregular pieces published by Poul Anderson in 1961.  The
last piece was "An Introduction to Filk Singing," by Karen Anderson.  It begins:

    In the first place, "filk song" was a typographical error.  That was
obvious to everybody who read the essay in whose title it appeared.
Besides it had no meaning.  Who ever heard of a filk?

    Since the essay appeared in an amateur publication circulated among
science fiction fans, though, there was only one thing to do.  Rather
than waste a phrase like "filk song," something must be created to
which the name could be applied.  Now, some eight years later, it means
"a topical song borrowing the melody and structure of a well-known folk
or popular song."  And there are hundreds of them.

Despite Karen Anderson's definition, there were already filksongs with original
tunes.  Of course, back then the only ways to learn a new tune were reading sheet
music (Pelz's Filksong Manuals had sheet music for many songs) or picking it up
from a recording (phonograph record, wire recorder or reel-to-reel tape recorder).

Eventually I got around to asking older fans about just what fan had originally
typoed "folk song" into "filk song" in just what "amateur publication."  The
culprit turned out to be Lee Jacobs, a LArea fan who had died shortly before I
entered fandom.  Back in the 50s, he'd submitted an essay to SAPS (Spectator
Amateur Press Society) entitled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern
American Filk Music" about supposed science fiction incidents in folk song, which
was a straight-faced analysis of a number of thoroughly filthy "dirty songs,"
taking various metaphors in them as if they were meant literally.

Wrai Ballard, the Official Editor of SAPS, rejected the essay on the grounds that
the songs would get the APA in trouble with the Post Office, by violating the laws
against mailing pornography.  But he did notice that LeeJ's title had an interest-
ing typo:  FILK SONG.  He told his friends about it.  And he had a lot of friends.

Lee Jacobs eventually published his essay elsewhere (this time getting the title
spelled accurately), but by that time most of the people in organized SF fandom had
heard about "filk songs."  They decided, as Karen Anderson wrote,  to apply the
term filk to the already long-standing tradition of SF/fannish songs and music.

Most pre-cassette recorder filk falls into two basic categories:  1) Melodies
written for poems from professional fantasy and science fiction (with lyrics by
such authors as Myers, Tolkien and Heinlein), and 2) Lyrics written by to
well-known melodies (folk songs, show tunes, Gilbert & Sullivan, popular songs).

A number of such lyrics appeared in professionally published F&SF including
Tolkien's "Troll Song" (to the tune of "The Fox Is on the Town-O") and Heinlein's
song in "The Roads Must Roll" (to the tune of "The Caissons Go Rolling Along").

Other lyrics were published in fanzines, both by pros and fans -- the distinction
wasn't as great in those days.  Shapiro's 1960 filkbook included "Pore Stf is Dead"
by Damon Knight and "The Author's Ordeal" by Isaac Asimov, as well as a number of
pieces by Charles Tanner and Randall Garrett summarizing various F&SF books' plots,
inspired by Newman Levy's poems devoted to plays and operas.  (Levy wrote the
lyrics of "Thais"; I have no idea who wrote the tune.  I reprinted one of Tanner's
filksongs in Xenofilkia #1.  Garrett's filksongs appear in THE BEST OF RANDALL
GARRETT and the trade paperback anthologies TAKEOFF! and TAKEOFF TOO!)

Early incidents of what we'd now call filk are chronicled in Harry Warner, Jr.'s
excellent histories of fandom:  ALL OUR YESTERDAYS and A WEALTH OF FABLE.  Warner
notes that "'Filksong' was a term that had not yet been invented, but songs were
sung [at the 1940 Worldcon] that consisted of new lyrics with a science fiction
theme set to familiar tunes."  Filthy Pierre aka Erwin Strauss gave me photocopies
of two sheets of these songs that he'd picked up, and I reprinted them in
Xenofilkia #18 and #19.  They were by John Bristol, a pseudonym of Jack Speer.  The
one that puzzles me is a short piece which is said to be to "the obvious tune."
I'll print it here just in case someone can recognize it.

	We'll build a tempo-ship
	And we'll take a little trip,
	And watch a million years go by.

At the third Michicon on Halloween weekend of 1943, to celebrate the opening of
Battle Creek's Slan Shack, "Some 22 persons drifted in and out over the weekend
....A SCIENCE FICTION SONG SHEET was published, containing fan parodies suitable
for group singing."  Warner notes that Jack Speer was there (blowing up black
balloons), so perhaps some or all of the songs were his.

"The first respectable publication of music in fandom was Jim Blish's setting of
Kornbluth's poem "Cry in the Night," distributed in the May, 1945 VAPA [Vanguard
Amateur Press Association] mailing....

"Just after World War II, Blish and Robert W. Lowndes got outside funds for their
attempt to found a firm producing 78-rpm discs.  One fan composition, Chandler
Davis' 'Song of Worlds Unseen,' performed by pianist Bertha Melnik, was among the
works on Vanguard discs that actually got distributed....The company collapsed
after it lost an angel [backer]."

The 1947 Worldcon had what Warner says was "Perhaps the first of the big drunken
worldcon parties...in the Hadley [Publishing Co.] site....Fans gaped in disbelief
at [John] Campbell sitting on the floor, helping Hubert Rogers and Benson Dooling
to sing a variety of bawdy ditties."  The next night saw Mary Mair singing "a vocal
setting of Sturgeon's 'Thunder and Roses' [and] Chandler Davis playing his own
compositions on the piano; [Joe] Kennedy, Fred Burgess, George Fox and Algis Budrys
singing as a quartet a ditty about Amazing ("We shout to the skies the praises of
Shaver,/ We wish that he were a moldy cadaver"); and Milton Rothman playing the

At the 1952 Worldcon, "everyone joined in 'Glory, How We Hate Ray Bradbury' (to the
tune of 'John Brown's Body' during the ball."  (Also known as "The Bradbury Hate
Song," this was written by Ray Beam, Jack Natkin, Lewis Forbes, Jerry Hunter and
probably others.  It appeared in Shapiro's STF & FSY SONGBOOK and was later
reprinted in a Pelz Filksong Manual.)

A year later, in 1953, the Worldcon's last event was "Gordy Dickson...with his
guitar and science fiction ballads."  And the year after that, in 1954, the
Worldcon program included an operetta adapted from Ray Bradbury's "A Scent of
Sarsaparilla," narrated by Anthony Boucher.  At the 1955 Worldcon, a fan choir sang
a number of Damon Knight's songs written to Richard Rodgers' tunes.

Meanwhile, the Liverpool Science Fiction Society of England acquired a used tape
recorder in 1953.  It did a number of taped productions which, says Warner, "were
done with professional eclat, were hilarious to anyone who knew the peculiarities
of both fandom and the BBC, and achieved such miracles as a full symphony orchestra
accompanying what sounded like a choir of hundreds of voices singing fannish

And in 1959, the Worldcon saw everyone present who had ever sold anything to John
Campbell gather together to sing "Oh, No, John," written by Randall Garrett to the
tune of the folksong of the same name.  Randall later wrote, "We sang the song to
him, and he just stood there, looking superior, which he had every right to do, and
when it was over, he looked around at all of us, and said, 'Thank you for your
stories.'"  (This filksong appeared in the 1960 SAPS mailing and was reprinted in a
Pelz Filksong Manual with the note that "A fifth verse, added by Karen Anderson, is
apparently lost."  This verse finally appeared in FILKER UP #1.)

In addition to writing filksongs sung at the 1940 Worldcon, Jack Speer was also
responsible for Fancyclopedia I in 1944.  In 1959, Richard H. Eney enlarged this
into Fancyclopedia II, which included the following definition of Filk Song
credited to [Nancy] Share:  "A type of music which, if it weren't fannish, would be
called a folk song; fan parodies or pastiches of this or other types of mundane
chansons."  Fancy II's definition of Poetry also bears on Filk:

    Fantasy poetry, of course, dates from earliest times.  Science-fiction
has not seemed such a good subject for poetic flights, but efforts have
been made by fans (some worthy), and among famous poets scientistic
pieces are found -- notable in Tennyson and Kipling -- tho some with
stfnal themes are actually anti-science.

    In fandom and the pros we have:  ballads, usually of rather simple
appeal; a couple of epics; such semi-narrative and descriptive pieces
as "Passing of the Planets"; store of poetry expressing personal
feeling with no connection with fans save that fantasy fans have
written it or Red Moon, Martian Lover, first space flight, ktp
[Esperanto for "etc."--LG], are substituted for mundane themes;
dadaistic and metaphysical jingles like daffy poetics; and a great
many parodies of various types of poems and songs.

A year later, in 1962, the National Fantasy Fan Federation published Donald
Franson's A Key to the Terminology of Science-Fiction Fandom.  Its definition of
"filk song" was "Fannish folk song, often a parody of a mundane folk song."

It's a bit frightening to realize that THE HACKER'S DICTIONARY's definition of
"filk"  isn't as up to date as Franson's.  It defines "filk" as "[from SF fandom,
where a typo for 'folk' was adopted as new word] n.,v. A 'filk' is a popular or
folk song with lyrics revised or completely new lyrics, intended for humorous
effect when read aloud and/or to be sung late at night at SF conventions."  I'd
suggest that filkers send the person(s) responsible for this dictionary a better
definition if I hadn't recently seen weeks of (enjoyable but futile) controversy as
to how to define "filk" during the creation of the rec.music.filk newsgroup, all of
it ending up in resigned agreement on the minimal statement that filk was a genre
of music that had originated in science fiction fandom.

I entered SF fandom in 1967, about the time that filking -- on the West Coast, at
least -- began to wither away.  Some of us connected this to the growing popularity
of artistic rock, played to sophisticated tunes that required more than just one
singer with the ability to strum half a dozen guitar chords.  Whatever the cause,
Pelz published one more Filksong Manual in 1969, but that was the last of them.
Ted Johnstone and I wrote a few more songs together (such as "Eating Crottled
Greeps") but essentially new filk in the LArea came to a halt with the end of the

In 1973, I came across what was then the NESFA filksong collection:  fifteen pages
of songs, some of them college dirty songs like "Seven Old Ladies."  But there was
also "The Ballad of Gordy Dickson" by Ben Bova ("FIRST PUBLICATION ANYWHERE"
trumpets the claim at the bottom of the page) and "The Ballad of John W. Campbell"
by Joe Ross (to an original tune but without sheet music).

In February, 1976, in time for Boskone XIII, the first edition of the NESFA Hymnal
came out, edited by Craig R. McDonough.  It had a pink cover and 61 pages of songs.
 The editor's introduction noted that "Part of the activities at past BOSKONEs have
include the singing (and otherwise bandying about) of a most peculiar type of
composition known as the Fannish Folk-Song or "Filksong."  As there is always a
shortage of readable copy of some of these songs (to ensure, amongst other
considerations, that everyone is at least trying to sing the same song), it was
deemed by NESFA that There Would Be a NESFA SongBook for Use at The BOSKONE."

The book was called a "hymnal" as a reference to the style of filking then popular
in the Boston area, in which all audience members expected to have access to the
words of the song that the song leaders were singing, just as church-goers expect
to be able to turn to the correct page in their hymnal and sing along with the

Later Boskones held Filksong Contests, whose entries were photocopied at the
convention into Filksong Books distributed in the filking room.  The Boskone 14
Filksong Book was edited by Joe Ross with the assistance of Lisa Raskind, and so
probably were the uncredited filksong books at the next two Boskones. Boskone 14's
Filksong Book had 27 pages; 15's had 57 pages; 16's had 32 pages and an announce-
ment of "the forthcoming NESFA HYMNAL."  I don't know how long this tradition of
instant Boskone filkbooks continued, but it eventually died out and I have not
heard of its rebirth.

In 1976, Ruth Berman and Ken Nahigian edited THE MIDDLE-EARTH SONGBOOK, over a
hundred pages of songs set in the world of JRR Tolkien, including (with her
permission) Marian Zimmer Bradley's melodies for Tolkien's own songs (recently
recorded by Annwn -- at long last).

THE HOPSFA HYMNAL came out about the same time.  Its editors printed all the F&SF
songs they could find, often neglecting such minor issues as proofreading,
copyright, and obtaining authors' permission.  THE NEW YORK CONSPIRACY SONGBOOK
used similar tactics.  Both eventually encountered legal difficulties.

In fact, it was a longstanding fanzine tradition to feel free to reprint short
pieces of copyrighted material without consulting the authors -- as long as the
editor made sure to credit them and to send them a copy.  Hal Shapiro's 1960
collection included pieces from many copyrighted F&SF works.  But it appeared at a
time when a Worldcon had less than a thousand members.  As fandom grew, its
publications took on more commercial and legal significance.

The second edition of the NESFA Hymnal was over 200 pages, edited by Joe Ross with
the assistance of Lisa Raskind, in 1979.  It's still in print, thanks to NESFA.
The editor's introduction notes:

    It was at the NESFA meeting of 10 December 1972 that Richard Harter
first proposed that NESFA produce the 'ultimate' filksong book.
According to the minutes, Jim Saklad suggested the title The NESFA
Hymnal....From that brief exchange, the word 'hymnal' has entered the
fannish vocabulary....

    While many mourn the passing of much of the old informality of fandom,
we feel that the custom of copying filksongs without consulting their
originators is no longer a viable practice, if ever it was.  We have
sought permission to use all songs of known authorship whose authors
were still living, regardless of whether the songs were legally covered
by copyright....Many writers have had the opportunity to correct errors
that have crept into their songs over the years.

In 1978, Filthy Pierre aka Erwin Strauss printed FILTHY PIERRE'S MICRO FILK,
over four hundred filksongs, most of them fairly old, in print so tiny that the
only way to sing from it was to retype the songs.

In 1980, just in time for sale at Westercon XXXIII, the first Westerfilk came
out:  eighty-eight pages of new songs, many with original tunes, soon
accompanied by commercial *cassettes* of the songs.  Only afterwards did I
begin to hear references to "bardic circle," let alone to "chaos circle."
Modern filk had begun.  I'd welcome any further information on pre-modern filk.

Lee Gold, editor XENOFILKIA, 3965 Alla Road, Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310) 306-7456; online as of 11/98 at leeway@mediaone.net.

The original version of this document is located at http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~mrohde/songs/filkhist.html

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