Folk music is one of the best and most enduring genres. It’s fun, it’ll make you think, and it’ll help you relax. What began as “the music of the people” in the 19th century evolved into a more expansive genre throughout the 20th. What are the best folk songs? Find out below.
“The Sounds of Silence” – Simon and Garfunkel
So begins the signature song from folk legends Simon and Garfunkel. They originally recorded it acoustically. Folk rock was born when producer Tom Wilson added a rock band.
“This Land is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie
Who is the greatest folk singer of all time? Many would say Woody Guthrie.
He hugely influenced almost every folk singer that came after him, especially Bob Dylan.
Though “This Land is Your Land” is generally thought of as a patriotic song, in reality it’s a critique of capitalism.
“Puff the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul, and Mary
Peter, Paul, and Mary were hugely popular in their time. They’re known for adding lighter, poppier elements to folk music.
Their best-known song is “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It’s a popular myth that this song is about drugs. In actuality, it’s just a fun song about a dragon.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan
Many of the best folk songs of the 60s were written by legendary songwriter Bob Dylan.
A call for racial and societal equality, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is one of the most iconic tracks in music history. It has been covered hundreds of times.
“Across the Great Divide” – Kate Wolf
Some of the best folk songs are those that engage in deep self-reflection.
On “Across the Great Divide,” Kate Wolf wonders where she’s been and how she should move forward. Its universal message is what makes it one of the best folk songs of the 80s.
“Alice’s Restaurant” – Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie may be folk legend Woody Guthrie’s son, but he’s blazed a trail all his own.
“Alice’s Restaurant” is the title track from Arlo Guthrie’s most popular album. The story song, which is over 17 minutes long, features many fun twists and turns.
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – The Kingston Trio
The Folk Revival of the 1950s and 60s spawned many penetrating songs about the culture of the time.
One of the most famous is The Kingston Trio’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” A protest song about the Vietnam War, it’s one of the best folk songs because it goes deeper than its surface message with its hope for peace and unity.
“Tom Dula” – Neil Young
“Tom Dula,” or “Tom Dooley” as it is often titled, is one of the oldest folk songs. The lyrics are about an 1866 murder.
In 2012, rock legend Neil Young released an album of traditional folk songs, Americana. Like most tracks on the album, he gives “Tom Dula” an expansive electric arrangement.
“Wild World” – Cat Stevens
“Wild World” is one of the best folk songs of the 70s.
In the mournful love song, the narrator describes letting go of a lost love. Universal themes like this are common in the best folk songs.
Famously, when Cat Stevens was at the height of his popularity in the 1970s, he retired from music and converted to Islam. He returned to music in the 2000s.
“Angel From Montgomery” – John Prine
John Prine is one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time. Some of his most legendary songs include “Paradise,” “Sam Stone,” and “In Spite of Ourselves.”
“Angel From Montgomery” is told from the perspective of a bored housewife who doesn’t understand how her husband can be so dull. As in many of his songs, Prine explores feelings like no songwriter has.
The most popular version of “Angel From Montgomery” was done by Bonnie Raitt.
“Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
One of the most renowned songwriters of all time, Leonard Cohen originally wanted to be a poet. It shows, as his lyrics are always penetrating, especially on “Suzanne.”
“Both Sides Now” – Judy Collins
“Both Sides Now” has become a standard. One of the best folk songs of the 60s, it has been covered by everyone from Glen Campbell and Seal to Josh Groban and Cilla Black.
The iconic track was written by another female icon of the era, Joni Mitchell.
“Leaving on a Jet Plane” – John Denver
“Leaving on a Jet Plan” might be the most singalongable song of all time. The most popular John Denver song this side of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it was taken to the top of the charts by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
“For What It’s Worth” – Buffalo Springfield
Many songwriters in the 1960s were writing about the social issues of the time. “For What It’s Worth” is one of them, but it’s set apart because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s also some sweet guitar from Neil Young.
“At Seventeen” – Janis Ian
Janis Ian’s coming-of-age song “At Seventeen” hit #3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975. Its endearing mix of soft folk and pop helped propel Janis Ian’s career.
“Dink’s Song” – Dave Van Ronk
Called “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” New York songwriter Dave Van Ronk doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He mixed folk, blues, and jazz in a way nobody else ever has.
“Dink’s Song” was his signature tune, and was featured predominantly in the Coen Brothers film based on his life, Inside Llewyn Davis.
“We Shall Overcome” – Pete Seeger
There are few folk singers as legendary as Pete Seeger. He was friends with Woody Guthrie and was a major player in the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s.
His version of Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is still inspiring.
“Changes” – Phil Ochs
Though he is often overlooked, Phil Ochs’ reputation was on-par with that of Bob Dylan in the 1960s. It’s easy to see why.
Gorgeous “Changes” features delicately picked 12-string guitar and one of Ochs’ best vocal performances. Its lyrics, which are about the effects of the passing of time, are pure poetry.
Definitely one of the best folk songs.
“Four Strong Winds” – Ian and Sylvia
Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia are one of the most iconic folk duos of the 1960s. Their album Nashville was one of the first recorded in the city by pop artists.
“Four Strong Winds” is one of the most popular songs in Canada. It’s been covered by Hank Snow, the Carter Family, Neil Young, and many more.
“Heart of Gold” – Neil Young
Neil Young wrote many of the best folk songs of the 70s, including “After the Goldrush,” “Comes a Time,” and, of course, “Heart of Gold.”
A hit single from his landmark album Harvest, tender folk-rock track “Heart of Gold” features Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals.
“Poncho and Lefty” – Townes Van Zandt
Like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt is known for his songs that get to the heart of the human condition. “Pancho and Lefty,” which tells the story of an outlaw and a lawman, is typically brilliant Van Zandt.
The song was made into a huge hit by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1987.
“Fire and Rain” – James Taylor
James Taylor was one of the most popular entertainers in the 1970s. Though his career cooled off, he’s released many hit songs and albums since then.
Taken from his second album, 1970’s Sweet Baby James, the affecting song is about the suicide of a childhood friend of Taylor’s.
“Diamonds and Rust” – Joan Baez
A best folk songs list wouldn’t be complete without the big voice of Joan Baez.
She came to prominence in the folk movement of the 1960s, but the title track from her 1975 album Diamonds and Rust is her most popular song on streaming services.
The lyrics of “Diamonds and Rust” are about her relationship with Bob Dylan.
“The Circle Game” – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell was perhaps the most critically-acclaimed songwriter of the 1960s and 70s. She’s known for her intricate arrangements and outside-the-box chord progressions.
“The Circle Game” is one of many songs she wrote that were made famous by others. Ian and Sylvia and Buffy Sainte Marie originally recorded it.
“Turn Turn Turn” – The Byrds
Many of the best folk-rock songs were performed by the Byrds. Their jangly, electrified cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” put them on the map.
They gave a similar makeover to Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” with similarly sublime results.
“Amazing Grace” – Odetta
If there’s a definitive version of “Amazing Grace,” it’s Odetta’s.
Odetta had one of the biggest, best voices in gospel music. Her take on “Amazing Grace” will bring you to tears – or your knees.
“Mr. Bojangles” – Jerry Jeff Walker
While he’s renowned in songwriting circles, Jerry Jeff Walker doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.
His catchy, affecting story song “Mr. Bojangles” was made famous by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1974 version.
“Our Town” – Irish Dement
Many of the best folk songs are about the warmth and good feelings associated with a person’s hometown.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town,” from her 1992 album Infamous Angel, is a modern classic in this category.
“Arrow” – Cheryl Wheeler
Another track from a fantastic modern female singer-songwriter, “Arrow” is taken from Cheryl Wheeler’s 1990 album Circle and Arrows. It’s another perfect example of how meaningful lyrics are an essential aspect of the best folk songs.
“John Henry” – Bruce Springsteen
In 2006, rock legend Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, an album exploring the songbook of Pete Seeger. It covered all eras of the multi-faceted folk hero.
Though Seeger didn’t write it, his version of traditional folk song “John Henry” brought it into public consciousness. Springsteen’s rollicking version breathes new life into it.