Let’s take a mid-season break!

Where I’m sitting, it’s almost midsummer. Editor Asha, in Australia, is watching midwinter approach. But no matter where in the world you are, it’s a season of song. Some of us are singing around beach bonfires, others are caroling or gathering with friends and family to celebrate the return of the light. So this month for our poetry slam we’re going to be playing with songs!

Don’t get intimidated. Songwriting isn’t a particularly difficult form of poetry – a ballad is actually easier to write than a ballade – so long as the tricky part is done for you: the music. And this month’s format writes the music for you. All you have to do is fill in the words to your filk song.

Songwriting? Sounds too hard!

What’s the hardest part about a song? Writing the music, or staying on the beat? Let’s take out the hard part – writing the music – and stick to the words. When the music is already written for you (more on that in a second) all you have to do is stay on beat. Okay, I confess, this is a fun way to force you to learn about scansion that might make a lot more sense to you than the million posts I already wrote on the subject, most of which are linked here. Deal with it.

So what am I doing, then?

Filk music, a term popularized in the sci fi/fantasy/horror communities, is made by taking an existing song and putting new words to it that are relevant to a book, movie, or whatever thing the writer loves. We’re going to expand the rules a little bit this month and say that because we encourage you to respect copyright when possible (I’m not getting into the fanfic copyright and ethics debate here, I’m just not) you can write about anything you want. Characters from your latest story? Do it! A Weird Al style parody? Go for it! After all, people have been doing this since long before Samuel Francis Smith turned God Save the Queen into My Country Tis of Thee.

All you have to do is find a tune you like and put new words to it. I’ll talk about two ways to do that right now, an intuitive one and a slightly more mechanical and predictable one.

Where’s the music, though?

Ideally, for the purposes of the slam, you want to find a song that doesn’t have copyright issues. For purposes of making up songs and singing them in the car, the shower, or at work? Whatever, pick a tune. In the USA, this means songs published before 1923 or specifically dedicated to the public domain. There’s a useful and fairly comprehensive list here. As a general rule of thumb, folk songs are fair game (in fack, filk was originally a typo for folk) but watch out for “folk” songs from the 60’s and 70’s – they’re definitely copyrighted!

Some writers like to pick a tune and write their filk song based on what the tune reminds them of with its original words intact. Others like to pick a subject first and then go hunting for a tune. Whichever order you do it in, remember that if you’re picking a tune your readers aren’t familiar with (and some of them won’t be, I guarantee), it’s helpful to include a link to the original song.

I have a tune. Now what?

Well, if your writing process is anything like mine, you started with a song that reminded you of something. You’ve got an idea about one line, maybe, or you think “a-hunting we will go” sounds a lot like “a hungry wendigo.” In fact, you’ve probably done what the author of one of the filks that sticks in my head all the time (and which I can’t find on the internet to give credit to, so if you know, tell me in the comments) did. They started with Greensleeves for reasons which I’m about to make abundantly clear, explaining how what I sometimes call “the original Nice Guy song” has been filked so many times (including as What Child is This):



Greensle-eves was all my love
Greensle-eves was my delight
(hyphens added to clarify nonstandard additional syllable in original song)


Greensleeves is the tune you want
Greensleeves has no copyright

See what the writer did there, though? They used the same number of syllables in each line as the original song, with the stresses landing in the same places. They even used one of the same rhymes as the original song, and left some of the same words in, to make sure you get the point.

You can go either way with that technique, of course. Sticking close to the original words (or sounds) and rhymes gives you one effect; going further from the original gives you an entirely different effect, as this old filk shows (to the tune of Waltzing Matilda):


Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
(lyrics to Waltzing Matilda vary somewhat; this is a generally accepted version)


Once a jolly Cleric, and a magic-using Elf,
And a mighty Dwarf with a sword plus three
Left their native village – out to get their share of pelf.
You bash the Balrog, while I climb the tree.
(full text and info here)

As you can see, the filk version retains one of the original rhymes, which helps the singer to associate the new lyrics with the original song, but otherwise bears very little resemblance to the original.

This all seems so complicated

It’s not, really. I promise. Like Common Core math vs memorizing times tables, it’s just another way of looking at how to scan a piece of poetry. In this case, your scansion pattern has already been picked out by the songwriter and you just have to match it. If you want to do this more mechanically, I’ll show you how:

First, pick your tune

Remember this part? Okay. I’m going to pick Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye, because it got stuck in my head this morning and I can’t get it out so I might as well get some good out of the earworm. If you don’t know the tune, here it is.

Then mark the lyrics for scansion

Let’s use the chorus:

With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and drums and guns
The enemy nearly slew ye
Oh my darling dear, ye looked so queer
Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Remember how to mark scansion with a “u” and a “/” ? No? OK, take a minute to go refresh your recollection.

Now we’re going to mark out that chorus to see what it scans like. I’ll put the notation at the end of each line. Scanning a song often feels easier than scanning a sonnet or other poem because you’ve got music to help you! So while you COULD read the first line as all unstressed or all stressed syllables if you tried hard enough, the music tells you that it goes like this:

With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
uu/ u/ u/ u/ u/ u/

See what I mean? There’s really only one way to sing it. Let’s scan out the rest of that chorus:

With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo | uu/ u/ u/ u/ u/ u/
With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo | uu/ u/ u/ u/ u/ u/
With your drums and guns and drums and guns | uu/ u/ u/ u/
The enemy nearly slew ye | u /uu /u / /
Oh my darling dear, ye looked so queer | uu/ u/ u/ u/
Johnny I hardly knew ye. | /uu /u / /

Okay. So now that we know, mechanically, what the original song looked like, we can see how to match it up. I’m gonna say again – if you’ve already got this handled, skip this step. This is just a mechanical way to check and see if you’ve got it. Other people kinda feel that beat intuitively once it’s in a song. There’s no need to write out all this notation if your stressed beats are already landing in the right places: this is just one technique to have in your arsenal if you don’t feel confident doing that.

Anyway. The original song sounds kind of military to me even without the lyrics, and I’ve been writing a lot of interstellar war stories lately, so I’m going to stick with the military theme but update the technology:

With your laser blasters burning through, hurroo, hurroo | uu/ u/ u/ u/ u/ u/
With your laser blasters burning through, hurroo, hurroo | uu/ u/ u/ u/ u/ u/
With your laser blasters, cannon fire | uu/ u/ u/ u/
and mechanoid armies too, yeah | u /uu /u / /
When your ship was berthed back home on Earth | uu/ u/ u/ u/
Captain I hardly knew ye | /uu /u / /

As you can see, I’ve chosen to stick close-ish to the original idea and words, including the rhymes. Note that I also included the internal rhyme in the second to last line,because I felt that it was an important part of the original rhythm of the song. You can also see that the scansion of my song matches the scansion of the original chorus… but you can also tell that by just singing it to the tune of the original. If it fits, I (or you) did it right.

It’s your turn!

Pick a tune, pick a theme, find some words and go to it! Just remember to put (to the tune of [linked song]) at the beginning of your filk, or nobody’s gonna be able to sing along around the fire.