Over the (Cheshire) Moon

Lizzie Crowe and Eric Coleman of Iowa-based filk band Cheshire Moon often sing about topics like twisted fairy tales, libraries and Snow White. Photo courtesy of Amanda Jayne and Raeanne Dewey.
Lizzie Crowe and Eric Coleman of Iowa-based filk band Cheshire Moon often sing about topics like twisted fairy tales, libraries and Snow White. Photo courtesy of Amanda Jayne and Raeanne Dewey.
Lizzie Crowe and Eric Coleman’s music thrives and survives on inspiration and collaboration

Words by Sydney Schulte

Lizzie Crowe always considered herself a poet and a musician. But a performer? Not until Eric Coleman persuaded her to join him on stage during a  performance.

It was at the 2010 Capricon, a Chicago sci-fi convention. Coleman, a poet and musician himself, wanted a new voice for a project he was starting—something different than the hard rock sound of his last band. And after hearing Crowe sing at Windycon, another Illinoisan sci-fi con, he knew she was the one.

“I just heard this voice,” he said. “This amazing voice, and there’s the singer for the band.”

It took several months of convincing, though, to make anything happen. He finally got Crowe on stage at Capricon. The duo played two songs. Crowe was nervous the whole time. “I was shaking like a leaf in the wind,” she said, mimicking her trembling performance. “The vibrato was effective. Not on purpose, but it was effective.”

She might have been even more nervous if she had known what was to come of the whole thing—namely, a husband and a new band, Cheshire Moon. Even more nerve-racking, Coleman and Crowe decided their new group wouldn’t play something  mainstream like punk or country. The couple wanted to honor their fantasy and sci-fi roots. They would focus solely on filk, a genre few have ever heard of.

What the filk?

Yes, filk. It’s not a typo, although the name does stem from a misspelling of “folk” at a 1950s sci-fi convention. Filk started off at early sci-fi conventions with fans gathering together and singing badly at the tops of their lungs in hotels while “normal” guests (tried) to sleep.

From there, conventions grew in number—and in specificity. Sci-fi conventions branched off into comic cons and anime festivals. And eventually, filk fests. Erica Neely is the Ohio Valley Filk Fest’s Pegasus Evangelista—administrator of the Pegasus Awards. (A Pegasus is to filkers as a Tony is to a musical.) “I tend to think of it [filk] as music of the science-fiction fandom,” she said. “Frequently it has science-fiction or fantasy themes.”

Crowe and Coleman, who now live in Ames, Iowa, classify their music as a filk subgenre called mythpunk—twisted retellings of fairy tales, often in a modern setting.

“People do tend to separate the sort of silly songs and the serious, or the funny and the serious,” Neely said. “But beyond that, I don’t tend to see a lot of classification.”

While Neely doesn’t see it, there are plenty of debates about what filk is within the community. Some filkers say it’s serious music, while others argue it’s a parody. Some claim filk needs to be inspired by sci-fi and fantasy, plucking influences from the likes of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Harry Potter. (Wizard rock was a big thing in filk a few years ago.) Others would say any song with sci-fi and fantasy themes is filk. (So that would make “The Purple People Eater” and pretty much anything David Bowie recorded as Ziggy Stardust filk, right?) Oh, and don’t forget the sub-debate on whether the music and lyrics should be totally original or should use pre-existing music loaded with new lyrics like “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins.” Yeah, it’s complicated.

[Filk] is one of the most inclusive and openly inviting—arms spread inviting—groups that I’ve ever been a part of.”

– Lizzie Crowe

Despite all of the debates about what filk is, the genre is open to different performance styles. Filk first started out with a folksy sound, but it’s also been influenced by rock, jazz and blues. “And I’ve even seen some rap lately,” Neely said.

Cheshire Moon turns to the Brothers Grimm, Homer and Harry Potter for inspiration. “I have always been a giant fairy tale junkie, so that’s how so many of those stories end up being subjects of our music,” Crowe said.

Take Cheshire Moon’s song “Snow White, Red Road.” It tells the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves with a twist: Snow White is a witch under the tutelage of the Seven Dwarves. The Seven Dwarves teach her how to use her powers, which she then uses against the Evil Queen to dethrone her. When “magic is the only love she knows,” there’s no need for a prince.

The song sounds like something a medieval bard might sing at a local inn or tavern. The melody is warm and haunting. Like the sirens Odysseus faced in The Odyssey, Crowe’s vocals lure listeners in. Perhaps that’s one reason why this song won a Pegasus for “Best Song” at OVFF in 2014—an impressive feat considering the filk community votes to determine Pegasus winners.

Community at Cons

Though a lot of things stand out about filk, the community built around the genre is the biggest. While metal has its uniform—black t-shirts and spiked everything—and country all but demands fans have a pickup truck, a dog and a large collection of red solo cups, filk doesn’t require more than a willingness to participate to join in the fun. At conventions, filkers bring instruments, sit in a circle with their fellow musicians and just play. It’s a sci-fi jam session of intergalactic proportions. Whatever happens, happens.

“People show up with the widest assortment of instruments I’ve ever seen,” Coleman said. One of his favorite moments in a circle was playing a song with three guitar players, two fiddlers with very different styles, three hand drummers, a bassist and a pipe player. “It turned into this big, massive thing because of what everyone had brought that particular night.”

Some filk circles are less exciting than that one, but that doesn’t matter.

“It’s one of the most inclusive and openly inviting—arms spread inviting—groups that I’ve ever been a part of,” Crowe said. “It’s just so wonderful to be that accepted right out of the gate.”

Just watch out. If you join in you might find yourself with a spouse—or your very own filk band.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for this!

    Come see us play at Streetcar 209 in Des Moines December 10!

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