I have been avoiding writing about my experience as the Interfilk guest at the Ohio Valley Filk Festival two weeks ago. I’m a little afraid that cataloguing and naming the things that happened might rob them of some of the magical glow that they currently surround me with. However, for posterity, it needs to be done.
My journey with Filk (loosely the music of Science Fiction and Fantasy fans) started in 2017 when a friend (Alex) in Yass (the Australian town I live in), suggested that I check out Banned from Argo by Leslie Fish. Finding this song interesting, I quickly did this terrible cover, accompanied by some green-screen shenanigans with my kids.
As I was already a singer/songwriter in the folk tradition, and a fan of Sea Shanties, Pagan Music, Arthurian style ballads, Lord of the Rings, and Workers/Social Justice songs, I quickly found much to love about the Filk community. When COVID hit in 2019, and many of the conventions in the US went to an online format, I was able to do some solo concerts for NOVFF (2020), Filk Ontario (2021), Balticon (2022), and join the 24-hour filk-sing hosted by Filk Bytes and also the Festival of the Living Rooms (which is still going on virtually, and I got to meet Blind Lemming Chifon!). This meant that by 2022 I had spent close to a full month’s worth of hours on Zoom sessions and concerts with the incredible people in the Filk community.
So in April 2022 when Dr Kathleen Sloan (President of Interfilk and also 2023 Pegasus song contest joint winner for Best Adapted Song, Meat) asked me if I would be available to come to OVFF in 2023, it was an unbelievable surprise. As far as I can tell, I am the first Australian Interfilk guest at OVFF, and only the second Australian Interfilk guest ever (the first was Dave Luckett for ConChord in 2000).
After more than 12 months of disbelief and planning (thanks to Shirley from Travel Leaders for wrangling the flights), on 24 October I boarded the first of three flights to get me to Columbus Ohio.
After 30 hours of airports and flights, I arrived in Columbus to meet Kathleen for the first time. Fortunately I was the only person coming off the 11pm Dallas flight with a ukulele, so identification was not a problem. Kathleen drove me to DoubleTree hotel and very kindly helped me take the giant box delivered by Amazon to my room. This was the first of many kindnesses that Kathleen showed during my stay and I am very grateful for how well I was looked after by everyone at OVFF.
I knew that I wanted to contribute something unique to the Interfilk Auction, after all, they had generously brought me all the way from Australia. A few weeks prior to departure I had hatched a hare-brained scheme to paint a guitar; to go with the Australian animal puppets I had bought some months earlier. I couldn’t risk flying with a guitar, so I had ordered one on Amazon to be delivered to the Double Tree, and brought with me the materials needed to do the painting. By Wednesday afternoon the guitar was painted and sealed and, even more surprisingly, was actually tune-able and wasn’t the worst sounding guitar I have ever played.
Before departing, I had heard the terrible news that Bill Laubenheimer had passed away suddenly in July. Bill was a regular on Zoom filks with his partner Carole, and there were so many of his songs that I had enjoyed listening to, specifically the Sunken Land of R’lyeh (to Stan Rogers Mary Ellen Carter), Ragnarök (to Camelot) and the ‘death by PowerPoint’ song. The first people I spoke with in the hotel lobby on Thursday afternoon were Carole, Marc Grossman and his partner Katherine. Marc has been the wrangler on more Zoom filks than I can count, and frequently interjects after a song with fascinating anecdotes from his life. Being a little overwhelmed by the crowd of people coming into the hotel that I knew (but didn’t know) it was lovely to join Marc, Carole and Katherine for dinner at Sushiko across the road from the Double Tree.
As a father with two out of five children on the Autism spectrum, I am reasonably well attuned to picking up anxiety levels in neuro-divergent folk. It amazed me over the weekend how many people were clearly on the edge of their tolerance level, but still felt safe enough to engage through the caring and welcoming energy created by this community. Welcoming enough to sing or recite something to a crowd, which is no trivial thing.
After dinner I joined the Frisky Puppy filk circle and got to share songs with so many giants of filk. As a late comer to the community, I would discover incredible songs stepped in Filk lore, like Lullaby for a Weary World, and over the weekend I found myself sitting next to these giants of filk in the circle. I did not connect the dots until later in the weekend that Miles Vorkosigan (who can filk anything with supernatural speed) was in the circle and sang a fabulous Jessica Jones song.
On Friday morning, Robert Beckwith (visiting from the UK) and myself helped assemble the famous backdrop to the main OVFF stage under the watchful eye of Robin Nakkula and Kat Sharp. I don’t recall much else of Friday except for the Pegasus awards concert, where I had the honour of performing Lawrence Dean’s song Following our Dreams. Lawrence’s song went on to win the Best Filk Song award at the Saturday banquet. All of the performances were fabulous, but the ones I remember most are Peter Alway (after listening to him sing his brilliant songs from a car on so many Zoom circles) and Summer Russell, who launched this wonderful album, Courage, Dear Heart, at OVFF and whose voice and songwriting I have greatly admired since first hearing it. I also enjoyed hearing Sunnie Larson play violin on almost every song in the concert! There were filk circles after the concert, but I don’t recall what I played and heard or when I went to sleep.
I started Saturday with the Phil Ochs themed workshop that I ran on improvised harmony singing. Thankyou to the folks who joined and sung and contributed to the discussion. I even managed to slip in a Sea Shanty! I spent some of the morning sitting next to Kathy Mar in the dealers room selling the albums and songbook that I had (sincere thanks to those who purchased them). It was wonderful to hear Kathy explaining the background and intent of the album she released at OVFF, Bridge. Finding the things that we can connect over, rather than the things that divide us, really sums up my experience of the filk community.
The afternoon was filled with concerts, including my own. I was disappointed not to get more time to speak with Lauren Oxford (the Toastmaster), as her songwriting and collaboration with the Starlight Darlins overlapped with my strong interest in Appalachian folk. I had so many brief chats with people that I could have enjoyed talking with for 3 or 4 hours.
I’m generally not much of a dinner table conversationalist, but Kathleen invited me to the Interfilk table with Judith Hayman, Robert Beckwith, Douglas Davidson (who sung a brilliant song about chemistry in one of the circles) and others whose names I have not remembered. Lauren Oxford’s acceptance speech for her Pegasus award was so heartfelt and moving and summed up what it means to be part of the filk family.
I got to sing my entry for the song contest, and then got to witness the incredible spectacle which is the Interfilk auction. I was very honoured to have my song win the contest and then also get inducted into the Pretty Pretty Princesses. Knowing I have brought some happiness to the world is a thing I will treasure (along with the very cool tiara).
Summer’s Bardic Inspiration Themed Filk was full by the time the auction finished, but I had an excellent time in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) filk circle run by Mary Bertke and Bill & Brenda Sutton.
Deborah Van Heyningen and her parrot Basil are famous in the zoom filk circles, so it was wonderful to catch the tail end of her concert in the main hall, and also wonderful to meet Basil up close in the Con Suite (snack room).
While judging the Iron Filker competition did give me minor flashbacks to running recruitment interviews for public service positions, I was joined by two very competent judges and we quickly came to an agreement. I loved the songs I had heard from Beth Kinderman in the circles over the weekend so was very pleased that she won with ‘Fire & Air’. The formal part of the festival ended with several album launch concerts, and a ‘Closing Jam’ which I unfortunately hadn’t brought my ukulele down for.
Ever since hearing Bob Kanefsky’s parody of Hearthfire by Ada Palmer, I have been looking forward to seeing the famous Mongolian Barbeque that inspired the song. It definitely lived up to expectations and I understand the song so much better now. While it didn’t win the Pegasus for Best Adapted Song, there is always a future year.
An absolute highlight of the Dead Dog filk on Sunday night was when Deirdre Murphy (Wyld Dandelyon) set out an array of percussion instruments and asked the circle to make an ocean soundscape. I got to play with a rainstick, which I have wanted to do ever since hearing Malcolm Guite’s recitation of the Seamus Heaney poem here.
The Song Goes On
Monday held some sadness as people I had met so fleetingly started to leave the hotel. I know that the online connections will continue and grow stronger, but there is a special kind of magic created when occupying physical space together, and especially when singing together in that place. I wrote this poem on the Tuesday:
There's magic here at DoubleTree, Where fen are forged as family, And fast embrace is warm and free, In hallowed halls at DoubleTree. From far across this land and more, by plane and wagon filkers pour, To magic's fleeting star they draw, and bide a while at DoubleTree. Strong hands of steadfast volunteers, Work hours long at grinding gears, Supporting all sweet tears and cheers, That ring through castle DoubleTree. I leave with full but heavy heart, From magic's healing glow to part, But on the journey which I start, will ring the gold harmonic art, that sang to me at DoubleTree.
There are so many people that I met and haven’t mentioned, and so many people that worked to keep the festival running both over the weekend and in the many months before. So many hugs were given and received that I still carry the warmth of.
Thanks Cecilia Eng for driving us to the Mongolian Restaurant, to Daniel Gunderson for giving me a hug from Talis, to Heather Preston for your fabulous song in the Saturday open filk, to the person who sung ‘I Ain’t a Martian Anymore’ and the person who sung Henry Lawson’s ‘Outside Track’, and to Watson Ladd for singing a ‘Waltzing Matilda’ Filk, to Merlin the dog for the pats, to Shirley Frantz for keeping the unicorns alive, to Mary for showing me around German Village, to Les Davis for taking me to breakfast and driving me to the airport, to the guy at the High Street Taco Bell who pretended to charge me $10 to use the toilet, to Jen and Eric Distad for your brilliant songs and letting my music stand be on stage with you, to Sunnie Larson for singing ‘Weary World’ so beautifully, to Gabrielle Gold for your fabulous cat song, to Doug Cottril, Steve MacDonald and the OVFF team for running the event and to so many others..
Thankyou for welcoming me into this magical family. Thankyou especially to Kathleen and the Interfilk organization for making my travel possible.