by Gwendolyn the Graceful, Brehyres

Gerard_van_honthorst_-_the_concert_-_1623In my article about the different types of bardic music found in the SCA, I touched on contrefait, and said I would devote an entire article to the topic. This is a complex and often controversial issue within the SCA bardic community, particularly the sub-category known (some would say incorrectly) as “filk.”

First, some definitions:

Contrefait (contrafactum, or contra facta) is the period term for the practice of taking an existing tune and writing new lyrics to it. In period, the source tunes were often church music, since what was sung in the church was known to everyone, but secular tunes were used, too.

Broadsides were also composed the same way: by writing lyrics that could be set to popular music of the day (and sometimes more than one tune. It was not unusual for a broadside to list a number of “excellent tunes” to which one might sing the words). (“The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the most famous Broadsides in the U.S…..) Broadsides were also a product of the world after the invention of the printing press, when it was easier to distribute music and lyrics.

Filk is used in the SCA to mean the same thing as a contrafactum, with one big difference: In the SCA, specifically, filk almost always refers to the use of a modern tune with lyrics that make little to no attempt at sounding period. They are often highly self-reflexive commentaries that poke directly at the “Anachronism” part of “SCA.”

For that reason, among others, the term “filk” is controversial, and in fact, offensive, to some.

“Filk” was supposedly a typo once upon a once, when someone trying to put a “folk music circle” into a con program misspelled it. The misspelling stuck. So “filk” as it is used outside of the SCA is not confined to rewritten lyrics to an existing tune. In the Sci-Fi-Fantasy Convention circuit, “Filk” is a catchall term meant to include any and all music of interest to the subculture.

But in the SCA, “filk” is also considered by many to be a prejudicial and derogatory term. I believe the other major reason it is viewed as pejorative is that “filk” in the SCA has become synonymous with works that are not as serious, or not as appropriate, or that otherwise “break” the medieval experience for other listeners. They are almost always set to popular or well-known modern songs. Very few of them are really “about” historical topics, or if they are, they often address those topics in self-consciously modern terms. Because of all that, the perception over time has been to think that filk music is somehow “lesser” than original music or even lyrics set to period tunes.

Now, I think it’s unfair to paint all “filk” with the same brush. I prefer to invoke Sturgeon’s Law when it comes to this sort of thing. It’s not that all filk is frivolous or scans poorly or doesn’t sufficiently change the source material as to count as new; it’s not that all filk uses aggressively modern music or that it is always self-reflexive or self-indulgent. I think it’s as simple as this: there’s a lot of it, and 90% of everything is crap.

There are different sub-genres of “filk,” according to the type of original source material, the topic of the lyrics, and other factors. I actually take my definition of filk in both SF con and SCA contexts one step further, by saying that a truly great “filk” really does at least one of these two things, and usually both:

  1. It uses the audience’s familiarity with the original song to inform both the new lyrics and the subject matter being depicted;
  2. It specifically addresses subjects that are meaningful to a subculture, such as a fan of a particular book, show, or movie, or, in our case, topics that are uniquely meaningful to the SCA’s subculture.

To my thinking, this differentiates “filk” from “contrefait” for our purposes because for the most part, using a period melody does not presuppose a familiarity with the original song (though it did, in period), whereas “filks” that take modern tunes usually do rely on that exposure.

Songs like this are often humorous and fall under the heading of parody, but not all are meant to be funny. However, almost all contrefait with a modern melody do pick the original tune for some reason that puts an ironic twist of some kind into the new lyrics. The catch is that that’s often easier said than done. One of the criticisms of SCA bardic performance in general is that there’s a low bar to entry. “Filk” gets its own unfairly poor reputation as one of the “lowest” bars for songwriting, because you’ve already got a tune, and you’ve already got a basis for the lyrics, depending on what prompted your choice. On the other hand, it can be deceptively difficult to do artfully.

The best way I can discuss this is with some examples. I’ll use my own work, simply because I have the right to reproduce it. All the songs I’ll be talking about have melodies that should be well-known to the reader, or are easily available if you’re unfamiliar with the tune.

My first example is a filk that uses audience familiarity with an original (modern) song to inform both the new lyrics and the subject matter in the song (point #1 above). Compare the original lyrics (left) to the rewritten ones (right):

Oh, they built the ship Titanic                          Oh, the jester came into the hall
To sail the ocean blue                                     To entertain the crowd
And they thought they had a ship                     And he thought he’d sing,
That the water couldn’t go through                   But the noise was much too loud
but the Lord’s almighty hand                            So he dove into his trusty sack
Said the ship would never land                         To answer his king’s call
It was sad when the great ship                         It was sad when the jester lost
went down.                                                     his balls.
Oh it was sad! It was sad!                                Oh it was sad! It was sad!
It was sad when the great ship                         It was sad when the jester lost
went down.                                                     his balls.
Husbands and wives                                        Nobles and Knights
Little children lost their lives                             Never had such a fright

It was sad when the great ship went down.        It was sad when the jester lost
went down.                                                     his balls.

Obviously, they share the same scansion and rhyme scheme, and the verse and chorus share the same structure. Several lines of the chorus aren’t different at all. But that’s about all they share. However, if a listening audience member knows the Titanic song, they’ll automatically know how to participate in the chorus.

Lines or lyrical phrases that remain the least changed from the original source to the “filked” lyric are often referred to as “hooks.” In a lot of filks, it’s clear or at least relatively obvious which lines may have been the hook — in other words, which lines struck the filk lyricist as a reason to use the song as a platform for the new sentiment. Here’s one that I wrote years ago with really obvious “hooks”:

You must remember this                          You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss                                   The gath’ring you can’t miss
A sigh is just a sigh                                  Has fun for you in store
The fundamental things apply                   The two-week long Medieval tour
As time goes by                                       Of Pennsic War.

And when two lovers woo                          And when two armies fight,
They still say, “I love you”                         Their ranks swelled up with knights
On that you can rely                                 And squires and scouts galore,
No matter what the future brings               You learn what heraldry is for
As time goes by.                                       At Pennsic War.

Moonlight and love songs,                          Bardics with filk songs
never out of date                                       bawdy, sweet or droll,
Hearts full of passion,                                Classes and parties,
Jealousy and hate                                      the classic swimming hole,
Woman needs man                                    The two-mile hike
And man must have his mate                     from the parking lot to troll
That no one can deny.                               That everyone abhors.

It’s still the same old story,                        It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory,                           A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.                                    And friends forevermore,
The world will always welcome                    We’ll live the Dream each year
lovers,                                                      together,
As time goes by.                                        At Pennsic War.

Once again, the original lyrics provide the rhyme scheme, the scansion, the structure, and in this case, some key lyrical “hooks” that twist the original song and give it a different context and meaning. However, this song also introduces an element of Filk Objective #2: It discusses a topic which is of significance to members who are already part of the subculture. I would say that this filk doesn’t completely fulfill that objective, because while it’s more meaningful to members of the SCA who have experienced Pennsic, it’s not impenetrable to people who have not. Unfortunately, it’s also not very good, so it fails in the cleverness department, in my opinion. It’s a fairly trivial song that doesn’t really deepen either the original or the new lyric.

My final example is one that is not an SCA song, per se, but one that really exemplifies the properties of an effective filk song. The tune to this is “Something There” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:

There’s something sweet                              There’s something here
And almost kind                                           Not of our kind
But he was mean and he was coarse              Yes, it’s a lifeform that is
And unrefined                                              As-yet undefined
And now he’s dear                                        Just what it wants
And so unsure                                              We’re not quite sure
I wonder why I didn’t see it                           But there is something there
there before.                                                that wasn’t there before.

She glanced this way                                    It came this way
I thought I saw                                            We thought we saw
And when we touched,                                 It took a tentacle
she didn’t shudder at my paw!                      And stuck it down his craw!
No, it can’t be…                                           No, it can’t be…
I’ll just ignore,                                             We can’t ignore
There may be something there                      But there is something there
That wasn’t there before                               That wasn’t there before.

New, and a bit alarming                                Ew, this is so disgusting!
Who’d have ever thought that this                 Who’d have ever thought that this
Could be?                                                    Could be?
True, he is no prince charming                       It’s ripping out his stomach
But there’s something in him                         And before you know it
That I simply didn’t see                                 The crew’s down to only me.

Well, who’d have thought?                             I’ll get away
And who’d have known?                                I’ll get back home
And who’d have guessed                               And when I do
They’d come together on their own?               I’ll tell them everything I know

We’ll wait and see                                         We’re not alone
A few days more                                           And safe no more
There may be something there                       Because there’s something there
That wasn’t there before.                               That wasn’t there before.

First, this definitely presupposes a familiarity with the original song and the context of the original song as a montage of Belle and the Beast starting to fancy one another. The new lyrics then use that bouncy melody to relate the plot of a movie that could not be further from Beauty and the Beast. Note also that this lyric never explicitly mentions what it’s about. It relies on the listener catching on. Thus, listeners who are unfamiliar with Beauty and the Beast or the plotline of Alien might be able to appreciate the clever lyric, but certainly won’t get much out of the song.

As you can imagine, it’s deceptively difficult to write a contrefait of this type that really hits home on all levels. The downfalls of filk are many, but some of the most common problems include:

  1. choosing a tune that is not easy to sing a capella or in a bardic context. A lot of modern music (especially popular or musical theatre music) is difficult and really challenging to sing without an accompaniment, or relies on the ability to “hear” the instrumental support, which one can’t necessarily bring to a bardic circle.
  2. forcing lines to fit into the scansion or rhyme scheme of a song. Often lyricists, especially beginning lyricists, will “lose track” of the scansion as they are writing the new lyrics. (This is not limited to the SCA, in fact, and was famously lampooned in the Tom Lehrer song, “Folk Song Army”) The best way to avoid this is to lay out the original lyrics next to the new ones, to make sure things track as much as desired.
  3. picking a tune that isn’t as well-known as desired. If you’re counting on your audience recognizing the song, make sure it’s recognizable.
  4. being so obscure or subtle in one’s references that the audience doesn’t understand what the song is supposed to be about.
  5. picking a tune or setting lyrics that are aggressively modern. In the SCA context in particular, successful “filks” either blend in with the medieval ambience or they are best reserved for a context in which they won’t jar the listener. Sometimes this can work as a conscious choice, as when the artist wants to be anachronistic for humor or irony. Unless you know your audience well, be careful that it doesn’t fall flat.

As with any performance, the usual principles apply:

  1. The material chosen must speak to some emotional grip on the audience;
  2. The performance must move the audience to that emotional place;
  3. The audience must be able to see, hear, and understand the performance.

Without these factors, it doesn’t matter if the tune is “new” or “used” or the lyrics are clever or banal.

As for using (modern) contrefait, it’s absolutely valid, depending on the venue and purpose of the performance. In my opinion, they’re more appropriate for small gatherings, post-revels, late nights, or if you really know your audience wants that kind of contribution. It’s merely a question of the right selection for the right occasion!

More on that…in another article!