So, on to Contata proper. (See this earlier article for context.) A filk con is different from a regular con (assuming that my limited experience at Lunacon allows me to generalize about a “regular” con) in that the filk con is explicitly organized around the music. In a lot of ways, it was really just a rolling three-day concert. Unlike Lunacon, there were few panels or discussions per se (though I must admit I simply missed a few, on things such as tone-shaping or guitar-making). Instead, there were scheduled performances and “open filking” — which is basically an otherwise-unoccupied room wherein anyone could drop by and begin singing. And of course, the traditional midnight chocolate tasting.
This put me in an odd position. As anyone who’s suffered through the Hun Talent Shows can tell you, I am every bit not a singer as I am not a songwriter. The only thing musical that I can play is an iPod. Thus I didn’t really have much to offer. (Only later did I come across Ian, who tells stories rather than sings. I thought, maybe I can do that, with enough prep work.) Indeed, the primary talent I brought to these sessions is my ability to clap loudly, honed at many a high school play. I could also join on the chorus — filk songs tend to have very crowd-friendly choruses — if there were enough other people to render my mangling anonymous.
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In a way, though, my utter lack of ability proved an asset. I didn’t feel compelled to be “on”; I didn’t have to jockey to make my presence felt. I was a little surprised, actually, how much of my “regular” experience involved making sure I was involved and recognized in discussions. Another lesson in humility! Likewise, because I knew I had no talent, I was free to enjoy everyone else without worrying where I’d stand in a hierarchy. I could just sit back and appreciate anyone who got up to perform, regardless of their polish.
And it has to be admitted — there was a huge disparity in talent among the singers. Many people were carried more by enthusiasm than by ability. I don’t want to be cruel but the fact remains. On the other hand, there were as many people who demonstrated real, honest talent — somewhat unpolished, often, which reflects the fact that for almost everyone, this is a hobby not a life. And finally, the guest of honor was Heather Dale, for whom performance is her life. More on Heather in a different post. And don’t get me wrong — enthusiasm carries the filkers pretty far. Almost no moment was truly cringe-worthy and none were nails-on-chalkboard bad. People did get wrapped up in their songs and they brought the rest of us along. In many ways it was more poignant hearing someone unskilled sing from the heart. It worked especially on the bittersweet songs of remembrance that seem common to the genre.
About halfway through the first session on Friday night, I suddenly understood why it felt so familiar. My insight is going to sound snide but I don’t mean it that way: It sounded like hymns at a church meeting. It really had that vibe. The faith that draws these people together is certainly not conventional and it’s more than a little nebulous. But it was clear this was a community united by faith in something. I think it’s a quixotic wonderful mix of the tacitly progressive belief in “the future” as promised in sci fi and a yearning for a past known never to have occurred. It’s a faith that the world is bigger than the everyday, that there’s meaning somewhere in the Universe. Maybe it’s really just a faith in themselves, in their own community. I could see where people take strength from that.
As an example: One of the guests-of-honor was to be Tom Smith, who is apparently a long-living legend in the filk community. A couple of weeks back he had a mishap coming off a stage and did real damage to his leg — so bad that he had to miss Contata because he was in for a second round of surgery. Now, Tom does filking professionally and so he is not covered under anyone’s health plan. (And the absurdity of that is a rant for a different day….) Anyway, at the last moment, Contata was restructured as a sort of impromptu Tom-Aid, a benefit for him to help offset the medical bills. People dug deep to buy merchandise or even just to donate, even though the demographic at a filk con doesn’t slew any more toward the well-off than any other random sample of people. Artists donated tracks to a commemorative CD offered in return for a donation; people donating money seemed honestly surprised to receive anything in return. It was a lot like how people tell us it worked in the good old days of small town America. It was uplifting to see.
Stuff like that happened all weekend. It was like a giant extended-family reunion. And to be brutally honest, science fiction attracts a disproportionate share of people who are socially awkward, for whom the social graces are more theoretical than observed, who have gone through life labeled “Does not play well with others”. But here, everyone jelled. People more than put with each other’s quirks; they celebrated them. Everyone had a spot in which to excel, and everyone gave of their excellence without stint.
What’s more, I doubt anyone else even noticed it. It was just How Things Are Done. As an outsider I could see the entirety in a way probably not available to those steeped in the community. I’ve seen plenty of functional but sterile events, and more than many simply dysfunctional ones. Without taking away anything from the con organizers and their whirlwind of effort to keep things moving, I was struck by how smoothly things seemed to flow. People put aside their egos because they all wanted the con to succeed — everyone felt a greater investment in the larger event than in their own small concerns. Again, from a group the larger culture derides and harries, this was nothing short of transcendent.