Traditional folk songs have helped to shape the music we listen to today. Singing tunes with just a guitar or a banjo in hand, folk music has come to shape American culture. Here we take a look at 25 of the best folk songs ever written.
1. This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
There are few folk songs in American history more famous than Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land.” He penned the song because he was tired of hearing Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” and wanted another patriotic song to sing.
2. If I Had a Hammer (Hammer Song) – Pete Seeger
There are few people more important to the revival of American folk music than Pete Seeger. He penned the tune “If I Had A Hammer (Hammer Song),” which became one of the most important songs of the civil rights movement.
3. Irene – Lead Belly
First recorded by Huddie Ledbetter or Lead Belly in 1933, “Irene” would eventually go on to be a number-one hit for Pete Seeger’s group The Weavers in 1950. Lead Belly, with his twelve-string guitar, was a walking encyclopedia of traditional music and helped to shape modern music today.
4. Freight Train – Elizabeth Cotten
Written by Elizabeth Cotten when she was a little girl at the turn of the 20th century, it is one of the most important American folk songs. She was discovered as a nanny for the Seeger family when she was found playing one of their guitars. She would become a major senior figure in the 60s folk revival, and “Freight Train” would become a staple of the folk songbook.
5. Little Boxes – Malvina Reynolds
The 1962 Malvina Roberts hit “Little Boxes” was a satirical take on the sudden growth of American suburbia, making fun of the uniformity of white-collar Americans, their homes, and their lifestyles. It would become a hit for Pete Seeger a year after she released it herself.
6. The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Folk music played a central part in the civil rights movement, and no songwriter exemplified this more than Bob Dylan. He wrote it as an anthem for the moment, a song that could be the wind in the sails of change. Truth be told, this entire list could be made of Dylan songs, but just one will have to do.
7. If I Were a Carpenter – Tim Hardin
Tim Hardin’s classic track “If I Were A Carpenter” is one of folk music’s most enduring tracks. Touching on themes of romantic insecurity, the tune was covered by many, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Darin, The Four Tops, Robert Plant, and, most famously, June Carter and Johnny Cash.
8. Blue Moon of Kentucky – Bill Monroe
Traditional folk music gave birth to many genres of American music, and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” is not only one of the first true bluegrass tunes, but it also was the first song Elvis Presley ever recorded, making it an integral part of rock ‘n roll history. Bill Monroe’s tune is the official state song of Kentucky.
9. 500 Miles – Hedy West
Written in 1961 by Hedy West, “500 Miles” is one of the most famous folk songs ever written. The tune has been covered by artists including Bobby Bare, Peter, Paul & Mary, Sonny & Cher, and Roseanne Cash. The song was also sung by Justin Timberlake in the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.
10. Candy Man – Mississippi John Hurt
One of the most influential elders of the folk revival was guitar picker Mississippi John Hurt. If you ask any blues or folk guitar picker, they are likely to tell you that he is one of their influences. “Candy Man” is a tongue-in-cheek ragtime tune that showed off his famous finger-picking style.
11. The Big Rock Candy Mountain – Harry McClintock
Recorded in 1928, Henry McClintock’s “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is one of the most recognizable folk songs ever written. All about a hobo’s paradise where the “hens lay soft-boiled eggs” and cigarettes grew on trees, the song gained widespread popularity when Burl Ives sang a version cleaned up for children.
Next: Songs about mountains
12. Deep River Blues – Doc Watson
One of the greatest bluesmen to ever pick a guitar was Doc Watson. Blind from a young age, he is one of the most beloved folk artists to ever play the guitar, and no song shows off his guitar mastery more than “Deep River Blues.”
13. Blues Run the Game – Jackson C. Frank
While Jackson C. Frank released only one album, it is one of the most influential folk albums ever released. The first track “Blues Run The Game” tells the story of a lovesick singer on the road and is Frank’s most enduring work. The song has been covered by Simon & Garfunkel, John Mayer, and Nick Drake, among others.
14. Pink Moon – Nick Drake
The first track of Nick Drake’s third album of the same name, “Pink Moon” provides insight into the psyche of a man struggling with depression. The beautiful, ethereal tune has gained cult-like status among folk aficionados.
15. Wild World – Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens’ iconic track “Wild World” is an ode to a lover leaving him. His powerful vocals made the song resonate with a large audience and helped make the album Tea For The Tillerman one of Stevens’ best works.
16. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
“Big Yellow Taxi” was one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest hits and captured the energy of the 60s hippy movement and growing eco-consciousness. Younger audiences are likely to be more familiar with Counting Crows’ cover of the tune, though some critics have suggested that if Mitchell’s version of the song is “paradise,” then the Counting Crows’ version is the “pavement.”
17. Operator – Jim Croce
Few folk singers have had a greater knack for storytelling than Jim Croce. “Operator” beautifully tells the story of a man whose girlfriend left him for his best friend, and he wants to call them to tell them he has forgiven them.
18. Sam Stone – John Prine
With an ability to twist words into knots, John Prine’s tune “Sam Stone” is one of his most powerful. A song about a father returning home from the Vietnam War and getting addicted to heroin, this song spoke deeply to those wishing the war would end.
19. L.A. Freeway – Guy Clark
“L.A. Freeway” was one of many folk songs for the many Americans disaffected by corporate, city life dreaming of living simpler. This regained some attention when Yellowstone star Ryan Bingham shared a cover of it.
20. Clay Pigeons – Blaze Foley
Known for his duct-taped shoes and E.T. hat band, Blaze Foley was a relatively unknown folk singer. Many of his recordings were lost, including one album, which was confiscated in a DEA drug raid. His song “Clay Pigeons” is a beloved folk classic, elevated by a cover by John Prine.
21. I’ll Be Here in the Morning – Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt is one of the great songwriters of his generation. While he often lent his forlorn voice to singing dark and heavy songs, his tune “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” is one of the greatest love songs ever sung.
22. Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
First published as a poem, “Suzanne” is Leonard Cohen’s reflection on platonic love. It was about his relationship with the dancer Suzanne Verdal. It was first performed by Judy Collins before Cohen would do so himself.
23. You’ve Got a Friend – Carole King
Many consider Carolie King’s album Tapestry the greatest record put out by a singer-songwriter. While each track is deserving of recognition, few are better known than her tune “You’ve Got A Friend.”
24. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson’s epic love story about Red Molly and James and a 1952 Vincent Black Lightning has it all. With a gorgeous guitar part, a heart-wrenching story, and the deep, emotional delivery of Thompson himself, this is a masterclass in folk songwriting.
25. Wyoming – Benjamin Tod
While folk music often feels relegated to the past, many artists are moving the genre into the future. One such artist is Lost Dog Street Band singer Benjamin Tod, who is proving to be one of the finest folk singers to ever play the game. He shows off a talent for lyrical composition and melody on his 2022 tune “Wyoming.”
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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