Supper’s Digests: An outsider’s outsider

It’s time for a musical interlude. Not knowing what to expect, and at the behest of friends whose obsessions, like mine, intersect literature, nerdiness and everything musical, Michelle and I attended the UK filk convention last month.

Filk music eludes accurate description. It’s more of a mindset than a genre. Over a weekend steeped in its world, trying to identify what it is and why it exists, we were hurtled through a fairground of musical styles, and pondered the nature of people who keep filk alive.

Originally a misspelling of ‘folk’, filk assimilates as many interests and personalities as it’s able to touch. Practitioners are united by common loves that include music, beer and wordplay. An outsider art, performed by people who know they’re outsiders and don’t care, filk music was once rooted in English and American folk idioms, but today it ventures farther.

Fundamental to filk culture is the concept of the circle, a gathering where anything from four to thirty people elect just to listen, or to take it in turns to play music to one another. A democracy of nominating and volunteering evolves; listeners at once become backing singers or instrumentalists, trading songs and sharing harmonies. Fresh material is revealed, and shy newcomers are heard and honed. These circles sustain themselves through the night, pouring forth music and holding court until breakfast.

Starting in 1987, the annual convention now resembles a family reunion, but its atmosphere remains one of unconditional support and appreciation. Music is treated seriously enough for huge stores of material to be composed and practised over the year, but personal eccentricities are taken for granted. The quality of songwriting and professionalism varies hugely. A few hesitant bars of ukulele scraped from a chord chart by a novice may introduce a song performed by a professional chorister.

No matter what its influences, though, this remains folk art simply because it is not mainstream. Filk is weird, but the longer you stare at a subculture, the weirder it always seems. There are plenty of examples from the recent past: modern opera; psychedelic rock; disco; the New Romantics of the Eighties. As soon as they enter the mainstream, they seem less barmy. Rap music is a pertinent example. The self-aggrandising misogyny, violence and materialism that characterises much of rap is at once a billboard and a sticking plaster. Regardless of the salary earned, nothing is masculine about improvising rhyming couplets against a recorded drumbeat. For all the firearms and swagger, The Notorious B.I.G. was basically Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

Where was I? Yes, filkers are absurd, but no more so than anybody else. Knowing this, they lovingly poke fun at most of the things they embrace. Songwriters may be science-fiction and fantasy enthusiasts, or irascible folkies belting out nasal renditions of protest songs in the Dorian mode. They may just as easily draw influence from the news, musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, or a trashy video box-set. Nothing is too cherished or too tacky for assimilation.

Much of the craft is in the performance, so filk music is best caught live. We beheld, for example, a marvellous arrangement of a Tweet about the theft of a Catholic relic, rendered as a doleful sea shanty. It was strongly reminiscent of Ivor Cutler. Another group shoehorned the theme of raising an adolescent boy into a Pete Seeger song (‘Where has all the Kleenex gone? Gone into the teenager’s room.’)

A novelty song about a German immigrant struggling to learn the delicate art of English understatement won a prize, as did a poignant ballad about what becomes of superheroes when they age. Given a room and time slot of her own, someone set the back-story of a computer game to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There’s a lot of effort in arranging, rehearsing and performing such a work, but considerable patience is demanded of an audience to bear the hour-long punchline. The jokes are not always apparent to a newcomer: with many hours of such programming, one can overdose on filk.

Would I recommend it? Only to some. Subcultures are subcultures because they don’t set out to please everybody. You have to be a geek, a good musician, or a collector of cultural curios to be a filker: preferably all three. Would I go back to the convention? Yes. I admire it for the same reason I enjoy my walks through Hackney: there’s so much of the Earth’s flavour crammed into such a small space, bumping together, that sparks of inspiration are cast in all directions. Most of these sparks do nothing useful, but occasionally there’s a glimpse of something transcendental.

I have been left with strong but abstract inspiration. Art always plunders art, and artists fall into spirals of self-regard in a frenzy for inspiration. Filk can do this too, but that doesn’t diminish it. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Hang around and listen. No matter how impoverished or dirty or incomplete your contribution, add it to the world. Catch enough sparks and you’ll make some of your own. Who knows: you too could be Percy Shelley, but with less privileged parents.

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