Some of the biggest acts in the world have had their roots in folk music, and yet it sometimes doesn’t receive the coverage it deserves. So, I’ve pulled together a list of the 55 best folk artists of all time to inspire others to delve into this musical genre and see just how cool it is even today.
1. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan just had to be in here, didn’t he? The best folk music artist of all time literally needs no introduction. If you have never listened to him, where have you been in life?
2. Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger is right up there with Bob Dylan for inspirational folk musicians, and for a good reason. He has written some of the all-time classics, and he led so many other musicians into the industry and was a source of inspiration.
3. Leonard Cohen
Known for his dark and almost spiritual lyrics, Leonard Cohen has had his music covered by so many artists. That alone lets you see how important an artist he is. However, do expect to have to think about his lyrics to get the most out of his music.
4. Simon & Garfunkel
Huge stars in the 60s and 70s, this duo produced a series of classic tracks with their easy to listen to melodies and thoughtful lyrics. From upbeat to deep and meaningful, they had everything. For a time, they were one of the biggest music acts in the world, and some of their songs still mean so much to people today.
5. Cat Stevens
A huge star in the 70s, he blended contemporary folk music with parts of pop, but his overwhelming approach was to promote peace through his music. I feel his laid-back approach will take you to a stress-free place, and what a cool thing to achieve.
6. John Prine
I love John Prine because he injected some real fun into his songs while still talking about serious issues. That contrast makes his music stand out, and his social commentary in his music made people sit up and take notice. Even though he was relevant decades ago, you can still appreciate the quality of his music and the message he wanted to put across.
7. Steeleye Span
This British folk rock band was formed in 1969, and they pushed the British folk revival that happened in 1970. I appreciate how they focus on traditional folk music and don’t believe in jazzing anything up. When you listen to their music, it’s back-to-basic stuff, but it’s still great music to listen to.
8. Neil Young
Known for his folk-rock music, Neil Young was a folk music superstar. I love how he combined more hard rock with folk styles in what became his own particular blend. If you are looking for someone who was highly influential, then he must be on your list. At times, you may not even feel as if you are listening to folk music.
9. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
This folk supergroup influenced American culture with their songs, and they were a real force to be reckoned with. I love just how intricate their vocal harmonies can become, and they were also amazing instrumentalists at the same time. They were a voice for change, and you still get that feeling when you listen to them now.
10. John Denver
Known for his acoustic approach, John Denver started off life as more of a traditional folk singer. His songs focused on nature and hatred of city life, and he took you on a more peaceful journey than so many other folk artists. I just love how he voiced his opinions but did it in such a tuneful way. To say he was melodic would be something of an understatement.
This Scottish folk singer incorporated jazz, pop, and even rock into his folk music making his songs unique. His passion comes through in his music, even though I admit his sound does not create too much energy. But that’s fine because what’s more important is the way he gets his message across, which he does loud and clear.
12. Kris Kristofferson
Forget about his acting career for a moment, as Kris Kristofferson is a highly accomplished folk musician. His gravel-like voice is a real stand-out, and that’s why I want to include him in this list of folk singers. Also, at one point he was quite outspoken and involved in the outlaw country movement, which you just don’t really expect from him.
13. Harry Chapin
This Grammy nominee was a huge deal in the folk music scene of the 70s. He produced 11 albums in a decade, and each single he released was a hit. Known as a hunger activist, we have been robbed of him due to his early death at just 38. Who knows how big he would have become if not for his untimely demise?
14. Joni Mitchell
With her soprano voice and ability to sound almost poetic, Joni Mitchell was one of the biggest folk stars of all time. Her voice is enchanting and leads you through the song, unlike almost any other star. She is rightfully viewed as one of the leading female lights of the folk music scene.
15. James Taylor
Known for his folk-pop music, James Taylor was a master with lyrics. While many don’t see him as a full-on folk singer, I disagree. I feel he adds so much sensitivity to what he’s saying, making him a must for this list.
16. Arlo Guthrie
Known for his protest tracks, Arlo Guthrie was never afraid to put his point across with his music. The son of Woody Guthrie, I love his way of telling stories in his songs. By the end, you always feel as if you have managed to learn something while his energy and passion for causes will come across loud and clear in his music.
17. Joan Armatrading
With over 20 albums to her name, this English singer-songwriter covers both folk rock and blues in her music. Her stunning voice and enthusiasm in her tracks will hit you hard, and that’s why I had to include her in this list. You need to seriously go and listen to her to get an inkling of just how amazing a musician she is.
Is there any other folk artist that has ever existed who had as powerful a voice as Odetta? It’s the real standout thing about her, and I urge you to take a listen and see just how stunning her voice was.
19. Ani DiFranco
I love Ani DiFranco, and she has made real waves since her debut album back in 1990. With a global fanbase, she has released over 20 studio albums along with additional compilations, collabs, and also live albums. I enjoy her music because she just sings with such depth of feeling in her songs.
20. Dave Van Ronk
Viewed as a huge influence in the Greenwich Village folk scene back in the 60s, he started off in a barbershop quartet. However, his desire for activism brought him into the more political folk music scene, so check him out to get a sense of what that music was like all those decades ago.
21. Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte started life as a calypso star, but it was folk music where he made his mark. He really pushed the Civil Rights Movement in his music, which was perfect for the political activism aspect of folk music.
22. Joan Baez
Joan Baez is another name I had to add to this list. With a soprano voice, she has the ability to add her own unique twist to anything from classic folk to covering Bob Dylan songs. Her talent is out of this world.
23. Judy Collins
One of the leading lights of 60s folk music, Judy Collins would mesmerize her audience with her thought-out lyrics and passion in her voice. She was at the forefront of the folk revival, paving the way for those to follow.
24. Ben Harper
Ben Harper deserves to be a bigger star than he is, as I think this guy has so much talent. I love his haunting lyrics and the way he brings soul into folk music leading, creating a sound that is uniquely him.
25. The Weavers
This folk quartet from Greenwich Village was where Pete Seeger got his break before he became a huge solo star. Their string-band style of music certainly laid the foundations for more modern-day folk music, and I feel they deserve their place because of the impact they had on folk music in general.
26. Paul Robeson
I’ve included Paul Robeson because of the quality of his voice. With a real bass to his voice, he also brought African-American music to the masses and became an inspiration to many. For that alone, he deserves to appear on my list.
27. The Mamas & the Papas
Viewed as one of the best folk groups of all time, The Mamas & The Papas achieved international success in the 60s. In Mama Cass, they also had one of the most prominent female folk singers of all time.
28. Ewan MacColl
This UK folk artist was at the heart of bringing the folk music scene back to life in the 60s. Known as something of a firebrand, his staunch approach to so many political issues lay at the heart of his music. Warning, his songs are full-on, so be prepared and listen carefully to what he has to say.
29. Bob Gibson
Seen as one of the leading lights of folk music in the 50s, Bob Gibson was an amazing banjo and 12-string guitar player. He had an emphasis on more traditional folk music, and I love having the opportunity to go back in time to when even folk music was far more basic.
30. Carter Family
Quite simply, the Carter Family influenced the whole of folk music in the US. Even Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash listened to them and were inspired. So, if you want to know where they got their musical interests from, then this is the folk group you need to listen to.
31. Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs’ career was short-lived after taking his own life in 1976, but he still managed to make a major impact. Seen as a protest singer, he had the ability to forcefully put across his message. That’s something I appreciate about his music, and you will feel his passion for things in every song.
32. Grateful Dead
From the Bay area, the Grateful Dead is more of a folk rock music, but they were highly influential on the scene. What I love is the way they bring bluegrass and jazz into the equation, resulting in a unique sound never before heard on the folk scene.
33. The Kingston Trio
I love what The Kingston Trio did with its music. They really launched the idea of a folk trio with their identical way of dressing. They have released more than 40 albums as well, so there’s lots of music to listen to.
34. Steve Goodman
Seen as both a folk and country singer, Steve Goodman was a huge star and also a Grammy winner. Even though most listen to him for his country music, I feel you need to go back to his folk days to get a real sense of what he was like as a musician. I promise you will have a new appreciation for him.
35. Tom Paxton
Tom Paxton is an amazing folk musician and had a serious interest in combining traditional folk music with more contemporary twists. As a songwriter, the list of artists that have covered his songs is out of this world. I’d check that out and be prepared to be amazed. Then, go back and check out his own music to see why he is loved by so many.
36. The Byrds
Formed in 1964, this American folk rock band made huge waves in such a short time with their stunning tracks. I love how their harmonies were kept so clear throughout their songs, and they just made the world feel like a happier place, and who wouldn’t want that?
The thing that stands out with Leadbelly is the way he covers both folk and blues music together. The ease with which he achieves this blend is second to none. This is old-school folk music.
38. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot
Known as a tall tale folk singer, this guy injects so much fun into his music you cannot help but enjoy it. With over 50 albums to his name, the only problem with his music is not knowing where to begin your journey to discover just how amazing he is as a musician.
39. Tom Rush
Tom Rush manages to incorporate both folk music and blues, which is always a classic combination. Seen as one of the main instigators of the singer-songwriter genre, he encouraged other folk singers to take control of their songs, leading to more personal touches. He really flew under the radar though, and that’s a real shame as more people should know about his talents.
40. Doc Watson
Doc Watson was a major influence on the folk music scene, and he’s also rightfully viewed as one of the best instrumentalists of all time. Bob Dylan loved him and brought aspects of his music into his own. So, if he was good enough for him, then he’s good enough for this list.
41. Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie remains one of the most influential folk artists of all time. With a focus on producing songs about socialism and anti-fascism, he wasn’t afraid to make a statement with his music. But don’t let politics cloud your appreciation of the quality of his music.
42. Johnny Cash
I know Johnny Cash is a country singer, but he started off as a folk singer, and it was an important musical genre to him. Of course, he could perform anything he wanted, so I think he still deserves to appear here.
43. Peter, Paul & Mary
This trio was forced together to make money, but let’s not forget their undoubted talent. They were able to bounce off one another and made music fun. It just shows what can happen when you put talented people together in a band at times.
44. Gordon Lightfoot
Viewed as a folk-rock singer, Gordon Lightfoot has largely been responsible for producing the folk-pop sound that appeared in the 70s. Seen as a musical legend, his songs are timeless and still provoke powerful thoughts and images that resonate today.
45. Fairport Convention
This English folk band was formed in 1967, and their influences were certainly in American folk. Seen as the British version of Jefferson Airplane, they are viewed as perhaps the most influential folk band in the UK.
46. Mike Seeger
The half-brother of Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger was an accomplished folk singer in his own right. Known for his distinctive voice, he could also play multiple instruments. I love how his voice has such an authentic feel to it that you cannot help but feel drawn into his songs.
47. The Clancy Brothers
This Irish folk group managed to make their mark on the American folk scene, and they were known also for the distinctive jumpers they would wear during performances. They also contributed to a revival in Irish folk music, and there’s no mistaking their traditional roots in their songs.
48. The Rooftop Singers
Known for the hit Walk Right In, this folk group had a more upbeat tempo to their music. They showed that folk music could be faster in style than you think, and their success as a trio indicated they took the right path with their music. If you want to listen to something that will leave a smile on your face, then I suggest checking out The Rooftop Singers.
49. Guy Clark
I’ve added Guy Clark for one reason, the way he narrates a story in his music. I think he is one of the best at it, and he certainly makes you pay attention to what he has to say, which should be the aim of any musician.
50. Josh White
Josh White was both a folk singer and a civil rights activist who sadly died in 1969. Along with keeping to traditional folk songs, he also loved to incorporate some urban blues into his music resulting in a smooth sound.
51. The Chad Mitchell Trio
This folk trio included John Denver at one point, but they were known for their amazing vocal harmonies and the balance in their songs. Also, they were never afraid to voice their opinion about different social situations of the time, but you will still enjoy the ease with which they work through their music.
52. The Seekers
This Australian folk quartet was formed in 1962, and it had major success in not only Australia but also in the UK and the US. I love their approach to music as they incorporated a happy, upbeat approach that would make anybody fall in love with folk music. I know that’s what happened to me when I checked them out for the first time.
53. Eva Cassidy
Eva Cassidy had an amazing talent, and her approach to folk music saw her also bring blues and jazz into the equation. With a soprano voice, she knew how to hit the notes with an added gusto that you often do not expect from a folk singer.
54. The Roches
This female vocal trio emerged onto the scene in 1973, and they would continue to perform right up until 2017. Known for their folk-pop, they certainly had a habit of making life sound so pleasant and nice, so there would be nothing that would upset people in their songs.
55. Janis Ian
This American singer-songwriter has performed for decades, and she first appeared on the folk scene back in the 60s when still a teenager. Blending both folk and soft rock, she quickly gained a following as people turned to her gentle melodies and ability to really tell a story in her songs.
Barry has worked as a freelance writer for over a decade and has developed an eye for detail when it comes to unearthing cool and interesting facts.
His love of music stems from his student days checking out up and coming bands playing in the darkest corners of bars and clubs in Edinburgh.
The love of uncovering something new also remains with him. With an appreciation for music that’s best described as eclectic, his musical tastes range from Eric Clapton to Eminem through to Snow Patrol and Incubus. The memories that music can bring back to the fore is something he tries to portray in his writing.
For him, the voyage of discovery and unearthing something new is what makes this task of writing for MusicGrotto.com so interesting.