Bowlers, ballads, bells, and blasters: Living history and fandom

Mark Soderstrom

SUNY-Empire State College School for Graduate Studies, Syracuse, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In many people's lives the disposition to create community around historical interest or reenacted historical community practices, or even just entertainment in a mythic-history setting, intersects with a related and similar interest in science fiction/fantasy literature and participation on some level in the related fandoms and social activities of SF/F. The bowlers, ballads, bells, and blasters of my title come together not just in current steampunk scenes but also in the storied and genred lives of many reenactors and fans. Or, as a friend of mine suggested when discussing this essay, "historical reenactment is the trade secret to fandom."

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Filk; Folk; History; Morris dancing; Reenactment; SF/F

Soderstrom, Mark. 2011. "Bowlers, Ballads, Bells, and Blasters: Living History and Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As Scottish SF writer Ken MacLeod said, "history is the trade secret of science fiction." The two disciplines cross paths often and sometimes even seem to merge. In many people's lives the disposition to create community around historical interest or reenacted historical community practices, or even just entertainment in a mythic-history setting, intersects with a related and similar interest in science fiction/fantasy literature and participation on some level in the related fandoms and social activities of SF/F. The bowlers, ballads, bells, and blasters of my title come together not just in current steampunk scenes but also in the storied and genred lives of many reenactors and fans. Or, as a friend of mine suggested when discussing this essay, "historical reenactment is the trade secret to fandom."

[1.2] There are significant interactions and shared discourses between reenactors and fandom. I use the word reenactors to include not just the people who reenact battles, fur trade camps, or other historical events, but also Renaissance festival participants and traditional musicians and/or dancers. Reenactors and fans are not just focused on text or time periods. In thinking about the continuity of these groups we should not overlook their lived social and cultural relationships, both productive and reproductive. The intersections of these interests in the lives of many individuals, and the way these activities organize community and create relationships of reciprocal exchange, function to create social networks that offer an alternative to modern patterns of consumptive leisure and the alienated marketplace.

2. Shared patterns of sociality

[2.1] My interest in these issues is more than academic. My passport into all of these communities was American and British traditional and political folk music. Historic musicians, historic dancers, historic reenactors, SF/F fans, and SF/F authors all moved in the same circles, and often were the same people and engaged in similar conversations across specific interests and social circles. These communities overlapped and came together at official and institutional gatherings such as the Renaissance festival and SF/F conventions, but also gathered at recurring traditional but less formal gatherings like parties for Twelfth Night, Mayday, equinox, and solstice, as well as ceilidh, square, and contra dances.

[2.2] I have observed the intersections of SF/F fandom and history firsthand. While there may be no single individual who spans all of these, looking at a few examples from Minnesota—one convention based, one an SF/F writer who grounds her work in historical events, and one a reenactor with an affinity for SF/F—shows ample evidence of the way these multiple interests create articulated relationships across a wide variety of interests, activities, and social groups. Traditional Applachian Shapenote hymn singing used to be a part of Minicon, the longest-running SF/F convention in Minnesota. Convention participants came together to sing four-part traditional shapenote hymns as well as clever filk parodies such as "Bound for the Promised Land" reset as a BART journey from Oakland to San Francisco. Similarly, all-night music sessions were common at Minicon, with fans and established authors of science fiction, urban fantasy, and sword and sorcery fantasy all sharing an interest in folk as well as filk music. SF/F fans can have multifaceted commitments to history, as in the case of one of my former singing partners, who is not only a traditional musician but also a core organizer of local conventions and a committed fan in the community. She is writing her own fantasy novel complete with elves and dwarves set in a local historical setting—1881 southern Minnesota. Our conversations move from music to politics to the news of the local and extended fan community; lately, as she is working on her novel, we've been discussing minute details of Minnesota historical culture and politics. The affinities also work the other way: the Facebook profile of an active Minnesota-based reenactor that I recently viewed had a portrait of him at a ship's wheel in 19th-century Jack Tar garb. His activities include Revolutionary War historical reenactment and morris dancing, his music includes local traditional and folk bands, his movies mix the Lord of the Rings trilogy, V for Vendetta, and Star Wars with Master and Commander and The Last of the Mohicans, while his reading mixes history, historical fiction, alternate history, and science fiction.

[2.3] Now when I go to cons, I expect to hear folk music and have conversations not just about books but also about the latest politics in the Scottish dance community. I expect to have conversations about new fantastic literature but also the history behind it. My life as a professional cultural historian is still tied to my life as a fan and reenactor. I have recently joined a morris dance team after I moved for an academic job. I am gratified to find that even in my new location the overlap of interests remains the same: historic dancers are often fans not just of history and traditional music but SF/F as well. For example, one dancer is also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and had recently attended DragonCon as part of the 76th Independence Brigade, a "preenactment" group of the rebel forces as portrayed in the science fiction TV series Firefly and the film Serenity. It seems that shared dispositions bring these interests back into orbit with each other—witness the British YouTube videos of Daleks morris dancing (for example, and

3. Communities of exchange: Fandom and historical economy

[3.1] Historical reenactment, music, dance, and fandom function as communities in more than just gatherings to share abstract interests; they also organize material exchange. Renaissance festivals are an obvious example where many of the performers travel the circuit to make their living in entertainment, food, or craft. As such, Renaissance festivals are a commercial enterprise. However, all these communities (even the least commercial) also function to support a cadre of small tradespeople and artisans who serve the community's needs, both esoterically and generally. Reenactment groups create a thriving trade for costume and historic gear that is often served by local artisans, jewelers, and merchants.

[3.2] In reenactment there is also a professional cadre who work in living history museums. The same goes for fandom. On the one hand, there is the professional cadre of editors and authors who interact with fans at conventions, whose job it is to produce the literature, film, Web sites, fanzines, and other material fans consume. There is a second tier of trade in the dealers' room where jewelers and merchants sell their crafts and collectables next to publishers selling their books. These professional communities are not separate from each other. Many jewelers move easily between Renaissance festivals, historical reenactments, and cons, selling their wares in all contexts; one jeweler I knew sold both at Minicon and local fur trade rendezvous.

[3.3] Additionally, festivals, fandom, musters, and rendezvous provide social and cultural connections where fans meet and form relationships that create material and economic exchanges outside the larger formal market mechanisms of mainstream society. As a painter, carpenter, and roofer, I met work partners and clients through my life in all of these circles. In fact, my painting partner and I never had a business card and never advertised, but we kept busy through word-of-mouth networks of fans, festival participants, and morris dancers.

[3.4] In Polanyi-esque ( economic terms, fan communities I have been involved with have functioned to organize economic relations as well as social relationships (Polanyi 1957). I have been among a large number of artisans whose jobbing network was based in these social groups, but I have also seen the network link people to each other in roles such as personal secretaries, mechanics, personal assistants, lawyers, medical professionals, and informal aides. These extended relationships fulfill people's needs for services outside modern impersonal market channels or social work bureaucracies. These social networks of affiliation, discourse, and material interaction account for at least some of the longevity and continuity of fandom. It should also not be ignored that people involved in reenactment and fandom also often find their romantic relationships there. As such they truly function as communities organizing both productive and reproductive relationships.

[3.5] All these social networks function as mutual benefit societies. In reenactment, Renaissance festival, and fandom communities, members organize events or collections to provide assistance to members in need. As a musician, I have performed in such benefits that served to raise money for medical expenses or to provide legal aid. Some informal local community practices have lately become more formal and institutionalized; for example, a Renaissance festival emergency fund, RESCU (, formed in 2004, has offered financial and other assistance to "any participant of a Renaissance festival, past or present, anywhere in the country."

4. Community economies offer exchange, not escape

[4.1] I have had a difficult time explaining my interest in SF/F literature, con attendance, and my personal history as a reenactor to some of my colleagues in both history and literature. These colleagues perceive SF/F and reenactment literature and culture as lacking serious social engagement and products of stunted development—communities frozen in an adolescent state, brought together by escapist fantasies. Looking at these economic exchanges in the SF/F and reenactment communities shows a completely different picture: these independent economies suggest a mature community that operates as an alternative to the dominant economy and not merely as an escapist social form that mirrors modern consumptive leisure. The communities organize face-to-face exchanges that create economies that are the antithesis of the modern alienated market of TV commercials and the yellow pages. Instead, these economic exchanges are grounded in organic communities and in turn help sustain those community members and bonds.

[4.2] More than just bringing people together through shared affinities to specific texts (books, films, comics in SF/F fandom) or common interests in specific time periods (historical reenactment), these groups are formations of sociality and networks of support. People do not engage in historic dance communities because they are trying to escape 20th-century alienated life and want to live in 19th-century England, Scotland, or Ireland. Rather, these are gatherings of people who want to come together to participate in a common activity (dance) but then also want to socialize together in the bar after rehearsal or performance, at house parties on holidays or nonholidays, and sometimes engage in other activities together (thus my own morris team recently put together an evening of caroling/wassailing). The Renaissance festival is the same. Rennies do not want to live in the real Renaissance but rather to create sociality with fellow performers, crafters, and festival workers. Relationships forged during the festival endure during the off seasons. All these communities from fandom to living history serve as sites of social gatherings, economic exchange, and other interactions. In this social realm the lines between these groups become very blurry. At fan parties, I have discussed historical politics and at reenactments after hours discussed fantasy and science fiction. The parties themselves are one of the sites that show most plainly how interconnected these communities are in sharing interests and participants, with many members who live across these imposed divides.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] My experiences in Renaissance festivals, historical music, dance, reenactment, and fandom—far from being an alienated product of modernity, a parasocial interaction, or a simulacrum of conversation (as some critics might suggest)—were the antithesis of those things. Convention fandom sparks intense and long-running conversations in person and online. Historical arts and performance necessitate deep engagement with historical texts and engender passionate conversations about issues of interpretation and representation; both historical reenactment and fandom engender deep and genuine intellectual and social interactions. Moreover, as social groups and affiliations, both these communities facilitate exchanges of goods and services that function in a person-to-person medium that bypasses the impersonal conventions of the modern marketplace. Shared dispositions to envisioning and exploring alternate realities historic, future, or fantastic are complemented by social and material exchanges that result in overlapped history and SF/F fan communities that endure through time.

6. Work cited

Polanyi, Karl. 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

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