Narrowing down the best folk songs of all time is no easy feat. After all, what people now know as folk music derives from a movement that rescued traditional music, infused it with social and political values, and later on added a touch every day and a lot of heart. The music scene was changed forever, and these folk songs are a testament to that.
1. This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie nearly universally tops everyone’s lists as one of the most important and influential folk singers of all time. This Land is Your Land is definitely his most famous tune, considered not only one of the best folk songs ever but also one of most important political songs of the time.
2. The Times They Are a’Changing by Bob Dylan
One of the most influential artists of the time, even non fans of folk music know of Bob Dylan. This song is a classic due to its timeless political message and association with the 1960’s protest movement. The song portrays restlessness of the young when ready to take over the world.
3. Woodstock by Joni Mitchell
Just about any Joni Mitchell song could go here, but the BBC places Woodstock at the top of its best folk songs of all time. This iconic song remains a musical Polaroid of Woodstock, reminding people the festival was more than music and drugs, it was the coming together of a defining generation.
4. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger wrote or covered most of the greatest folk songs out there; Rolling Stone even dubbed him as the “foremost contemporary popularizer of American folk music.” In Where Have All the Flowers Gone? the artist reflects on the consequences of war and the way history repeats itself, making it a song of perennial political value.
5. Tom Dooley by The Kingston Trio
Tom Dooley, considered an American Song of the Century by the RIAA, is a traditional song still famous today because of the version performed by folk artists The Kingston Trio. The song offers a slice of Americana preserved through music.
6. Pancho and Lefty by Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt was a master of the country-folk genre. His song Pancho and Lefty is part of Folk Alley’s 100 Most Essential Folk Songs list. While his songs tend to be more about life’s struggles than war, they’re still songs worth remembering.
7. I Ain’t Marching Anymore by Phil Ochs
Known for his protest and topical songs, Phil Ochs may not have been a popular as other folk singers of the 1960s. However his song I Ain’t Marching Anymore has been sung at countless protests. His music, such as this anti-war song, with simple yet truthful lyrics has stood the test of time.
8. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by Joan Baez
Joan Baez, whose musical career has spanned over 60 years, has been an indomitable political, environmental, and human rights activist throughout. While singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is one her most memorable performances, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down has been her most popular song according to Billboard.
9. Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel are featured twice on Folk Alley’s folk songs master list and are regularly included on all kind of “best of” lists. It is only natural; the folk rock duo created beautiful picturesque music that truly captured the essence of an era. Sound of Silence is an all-time classic.
10. Give Me One Reason by Tracy Chapman
Singer and activist, Tracy Chapman heads the list of famous women folk singers. Her heartfelt socially aware songs have landed her several Grammy awards including Best Contemporary Folk Album. Give Me One Reason peaked at #3 on Billboard and earned her a Grammy.
11. Suzanne by Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen was an accomplished poet, singer, and songwriter. His poignant songs deal with the duality of being and the whole spectrum of human emotions. Suzanne is included in Folk Alley‘s essential songs list, but his meaningful work earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award and a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
12. Raising Sand by Alison Krauss
Alison Krauss is one of the most popular folk, country, and bluegrass contemporary singers today. A multitude of Grammy Awards including two for Best Folk Album, testify to her talent. Thanks to her Billboard topping heart-rending songs like Raising Sand, she has established herself as worthy of hanging out with the grand old men of folk.
13. Red Dirt Girl by Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris, another Grammy award collector, has been forging her music career since 1960s. A singer, songwriter, and activist, she is not only critically-acclaimed, she is also loved by fellow artists. Her self-penned song Red Dirt Girl is considered one of the best examples of contemporary folk music.
14. Heart of Gold by Neil Young
Neil Young is considered one of the best folk rock artists of all time. His career has spanned over 50 years and has produced over 40 albums. Heart of Gold is considered one of the greatest folk rock songs of all time.
15. Ho Hey by The Lumineers
The Lumineers are fairly new in the folk rock scene, especially when considering the long careers of many of the folk artists. However, they arrived with a bang earning Grammy nominations and performing at the 55th Grammy ceremony right away. Their song Ho Hey is considered one of the best folk rock songs of more recent times.