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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dragon*Con pt. 2 the filk and the furries

This is part two of a three-day journal that I kept while trying to make sense of Dragon*Con '08.

Day 2

Sun., Aug. 31.

Hawke

Filking. It sounds like a ridiculous and disgusting porno term, but according to Wikipedia, “filk is folk music, usually with a science fiction or fantasy theme. But this definition is not exact. Filkers have been known to write filk songs about a variety of topics, including but not limited to tangentially-related topics such as computers and cats. The other common definition is anthropological (and recursive): Filk is what is sung or performed by the network of people who originally gathered to sing at science fiction/fantasy conventions. Yet another definition focuses on filking as a community of those interested in filk music and who form part of the social network self-identified with filking.”

Of course I am duty bound to look further than Wikipedia’s suspect entries. So when I learned that a filk concert was taking place Sunday night. I hopped on MARTA after dinner. I stopped by Aurora in L5P to grab a coffee first and bumped in to CL staff writer Thomas Wheatley. Thomas said he was at Dragon*Con the night before from about 11:30 p.m. until 3:45 a.m.

“What’s Dragon*Con like at 3:45 in the morning?” I asked. Then I remembered seeing a video the day before. It featured a woman passionately kissing a Storm Trooper under the words “What happens at Dragon*Con stays at Dragon*Con.”

I didn't pry any further.

At the hotel I asked the concierge for directions to the filking room. It was three levels down, all the way to the end of the hall on the right. Take a left and then turn right and you’re there.

Jeez. They put these people in the most remote corner of the building.

Buckethead

I recalled wandering around the hotel the night before and coming across a young man singing Karaoke-style about Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, over Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The man in question just happened to be a rising filk artist named Luke Ski who, as one fan put it, “he’s been played on Dr. Demento more than a few times!”

Okay…

The most engaging filk singer of the night was a man from Texas who performs under the stage name, Cedric. He was a burly man with a big beard and kilt. I entered the room expecting to find someone like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. What I found was a genuinely entertaining singer / songwriter who set most of his songs to themes about the television shows Firefly, Serenity and Battlestar Galactica.

He worked the crowd well and was by far the most talented person in the room.

One song in particular dealt mostly with the actress Katee Sackhoff who plays Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica... And if you can think of anything that rhymes with Sackhoff than you have a pretty good idea of what the mood in the filk room was like. And in the tradition of the finest songwriters, imagery was only implied.

Out of fear of hogging the fluorescent spot lights Cedric stepped aside to let a few other people do their thing. The most painful of which was a guy doing impersonations of everyone from Macy Gray to Captain Kirk to Jack Nicholson; all of which sounded exactly the same.

Ghost from American Werewolf in London

When he burst into an A cappella version of Frank Sinatra’s “Under my Skin” as sung by Captain Kirk, Captain Picard and Captain Janeway I quietly exited, thinking to myself that I deserve a Pulitzer for this blog.

I needed a dose of reality from the rest of the convention. Suddenly the hordes of Predators, the Storm Troopers with Furry tales hanging from their behinds, the naughty nurses, Jokers and various other monsters walking around seemed pretty normal.

I knew that Cedric would be performing more so I didn’t wander too far away.

I came back to find that he was now joined by an elderly wizard of a man, named Hawke. At the time they pretended not to know each other, but Cedric later admitted that they were musical partners in a group called Bedlam Bards.

Cedric

Cedric took time out to answer some questions.

Tell me about yourself.

My stage name is Cedric, and my music partner is called Hawke. We teamed up over ten years ago to play music for renfaires, which we've played from coast to coast. Our approach emphasizes passion over perfection, death before dishonor, and whiskey before breakfast.

We mostly came to filk when I started writing Firefly-inspired songs to keep myself awake on long drives. They weren't exactly the right thing to be singing at renfaires (though they do slip in), so we needed an audience to appreciate all our new stuff.

You mentioned that what you do is a slightly skewed version of filk. What sets you outside of the more hardcore vision of filk?

The vast majority of filk performers are amateurs, and a typical filk event is more of a song circle in which anyone, regardless of skill, talent, or experience, can perform any piece, often reading the lyrics from a massive collection (or a laptop these days). Most filkers do not focus quite so tightly on one or two shows as we do, and most don't have professional music careers outside of filk.

Also, most filk involves writing new lyrics to an existing tune. Original songs are probably less than 50% of filk.

That said, there are a number of notable pros who perform at filk circles or give filk concerts, including a few who play filk exclusively. And there are increasing numbers of original filk songs being written and performed by pros and amateurs alike.

Several things set us apart: One, we're professionals who play other genres. Two, we mostly cater to one show's fans. We're better known in the Firefly fan community than in the filk community. That's allowed us to bridge a gap between filk and fandom at large.

Do you have a favorite filk artist or is there anyone working within the genre that you appreciate or admire?

I appreciate quite a few filk artists: Leslie Fish, who gave the "folk" concert that was accidentally listed as "filk" in the convention program back in the 60s, thus naming the genre. Alexander James Adams, an amazing singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who also plays renfaires and Celtic festivals. Tom Smith, "the world's fastest filker," a prolific songwriter widely acknowledged as the king of filk. Vixy and Tony, a duo of incredibly talented performers -- a guitar god and songwriting siren capable of pulling off everything from hilarious original comedy to songs that really should be on the radio.

There are many more, but I also want to mention a fellow who goes by the screen name "Fax Paladin." He's a slightly awkward performer and a competent if not confident guitarist -- but he embodies the filk spirit as a bold amateur who will take on anything, making no apologies for not being a professional. People like him are the backbone of the filk community.

A lot of your songs are based on themes and characters from Firefly, Serenity and Battlestar Galactica. What draws you to these shows and how do they relate to the Celtic angle of your music?

Those shows are about people struggling to get by in a tough situation, and finding hope and faith even in the darkest times. Musically, these shows draw on Celtic, southern rock and world beat -- all genres near my style, so I don't feel odd singing about their themes. Also, the struggle of the Irish in America, veterans in the post-war South and oppressed people everywhere really tie into these shows.

What is the instrument that you played tonight? It wasn't quite a guitar…

It's a mandola, like a mandolin's big brother. I bought it for $55 in a pawn shop. (The Bedlam Bards use pawn shop and flea market instruments exclusively.) I also play fiddle, but I didn't have it with me that night.

You mentioned that you were a big hit with the under 5 crowd as well as for the renaissance faire crowd, which is a pretty broad range. What it's like playing for kids vs. the renfair people?

Both audiences can be unruly and love a chance to interact, to be part of the show. The biggest difference is that certain songs we do at faire are not at all appropriate for children.

Do you think that filk music or the community surrounding it is wrongfully stigmatized or made fun of by the Sci-Fi community at large?

I do. Because a filk circle is an incredibly egalitarian setting, in which anyone, no matter how bad, can perform -- the Sci-Fi community as a whole tends to look down on filkers. (Only gamers are considered lower.) You can have ten great performances and one terrible one, and non-flikers will remember the terrible one. I know some professional filkers who won't even say the word "filk" when they negotiate with a convention -- they just say, "I'm a professional musician, and I'd like to perform." It's sad that the rest of the Sci-Fi community doesn't appreciate its own indigenous music.

After Cedric's performance a few other filkers are setting up to perform, both of whom But Alas I took MARTA to get here and I'll have to take it back. The midnight hour has come and gone and I don't know when the train stops... Gotta run.

Luckily the trains are still running, but I'm the only one on the platform at both Peachtree Center and 5 Points station. I'm the only one on my train car and maybe even the only one on the whole train.

» Dragon*Con journal day 3

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