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Re: Filkin' Away

by Bob Kanefsky

The following is a copy of a letter sent by Bob Kanefsky to Andrea Dale re: her Filkin' Away article. This letter is reprinted with permission from both Bob and Andrea.


I just read your "songs and stories" essay in the UT WWW pages. A couple of things on that topic that weren't covered that seem important:

- For me, at least, while I may lose interest in a song after five minutes while I'd be willing to take several hours to read a story, it's also true that I'll happily listen to a song a dozen or a hundred times, while I wouldn't usually reread a story more than once, if that. It's not just a matter of length, either. I remember getting tired of at least one recorded two-minute introduction to a certain song long before I got tired of the song, even though the intro was hilarious the first few times. (No one you know; it wasn't a filk song; it was "Ode to a Gym Teacher" by Meg Christian.) I think it has something to do with the more highly structured nature of a song, compared to the type of story you're talking about. Stories that do get repeated a lot (e.g. bedtime stories, Sumerian mythology) are structured a little more like songs, and have a "hook" like songs do ("but it was TOO HOT", "I'll huff and I'll puff", "What big body parts you've got.")

- About the 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration -- that's definitely true in my experience -- getting an idea or one funny line is much easier than making the rest of the song not only technically correct but entertaining and not just filler -- but it reminds me of another possible difference between songs and stories. I don't know if this is true of people who write originally lyrics, but when I write a song parody I usually can hold the entire original and the parody-in-progress in my head at once. I rarely parody a song I don't have memorized (more than memorized; I need to almost literally know it forward and backward, or at least be able to "jump" to any line in the song), and I only write down an incomplete parody in case I wind up setting it aside for a long time. I don't think prose works that way; I think the 90% perspiration has to be done on the word processor (or with pen and paper or whatever). That's been my own experience the few times I've written (or not written) a prose parody.

- I agree with your point that lyrics often make more sense when they're sung, because the tune gives them the correct intonation. There's also something else that the tune provides, which for lack of a better word I call "emotional texture", because it changes from one word to the next and the lyrics have to fit with it. I don't understand how it works, except intuitively, but try singing "Velveteen" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun". It's not just funny because the whole tune is wrong for the song; to me individual lines are funny because of what the tune does at that point (e.g. on "have left their marks behind"). Or take "Heretic Heart", which is written to the tune they use for "Little Town of Bethlehem" in the U.K. (albeit sung more stridently). It would sound completely different to the U.S. tune for "Little Town of Bethlehem".

Urban Tapestry --