Folk music is one of the world’s oldest enduring genres. With deep ties to medieval-age troubadours and 20th-century American artists, the folk genre transcends generations and locations.
The folk revival in the 1960s saw the marriage of the acoustically-dominant genre with rock music for the first time. From traditional folk music to folk-rock classics, this list of best folk songs contains heavy hitters like Bob Dylan and fringe artists with dedicated followers like The Pogues, making a must-listen list of essential folk songs.
Wildwood Flower – Carter Family
Country classic ‘Wildwood Flower’ appears on the Carter Family’s historic album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Most notably, the song features the musical group’s signature form of guitar playing carried out by matriarch Maybelle Carter where she plays rhythm notes and the melody simultaneously (known as “scratch picking”). The Carter Family often appeared on Johnny Cash’s variety TV show to play this song in the 1960s and ’70s.
Related: Check out our playlist of song lyrics about flowers.
This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
Often misclassified as a simple patriotic song, folk star Woody Guthrie had the class struggle on his mind when he wrote ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Ruminating on the plight of the working class, he wrote the famous hit as a protest song rather than a patriotic tribute. Serving as further inspiration was Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America.’ When he began writing ‘This Land is Your Land’ in the ’40s, he originally wanted to write a parody of Berlin’s cross-country radio hit.
Related: Here are the best songs about no money.
Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
When he first performed ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ at a show in Greenwich Village, Dylan quipped, “This ain’t no protest song.” Ironically, that’s exactly what became of his single in the years after its release. Set to the melody of an early African-American song, ‘No More Auction Block,’ the tune came to be a symbol used to represent anti-war movements and equal rights groups.
Related: Find this song on our list of the best windy songs.
Where Have All the Flowers Gone – The Kingston Trio
Folk songwriter Pete Seeger wrote ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ as a way to advocate for peace after reading a novel focusing on the war-like state in the days of Russia’s tsarist autocracy. The popular vocal group Peter, Paul, and Mary often covered the tune live, and when The Kingston Trio saw them perform it, they decided to record it right away.
Related: Love your neighbor with these songs about peace and love.
Changes – Phil Ochs
“Sit by my side. Come as close as the air.” Though Phil Ochs wasn’t one of the ’60s folk darlings, he created some of the folk movement’s most moving pieces. The evocative nature of ‘Changes’ finds him contemplating the age-old notion that the only true constant in life is change. Though the song has sometimes been used as a protest song, Ochs’ original purpose in writing the tune was to send people a message of love.
Related: Hear more like this on our playlist of songs for social change.
Streets of London – Ralph McTell
The acoustic tune ‘Streets of London’ was written about disaffected groups folk songwriter Ralph McTell interacted with while walking around London’s various districts. McTell was a key figure in the UK’s folk revival of the ’60s. His song has endured through generations, with over 200 artists covering the thought-provoking track.
Related: Travel over to our playlist of songs about London.
Freight Train – Elizabeth Cotten
When Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was just a little girl, she taught herself how to play guitar on makeshift instruments because she was a lefty. She didn’t let her southpaw inclinations slow her down, as doing things differently often leads to skillful innovation. Due to her unique playing style, she invented a new playing style on the guitar, “cotten picking,” in which the thumb plays melody notes, and the other fingers hold down bass line work. She wrote ‘Freight Train’ about the trains she’d hear rolling by late at night as she fell asleep.
Related: All aboard our playlist of songs about trains!
We Shall Overcome – Pete Seeger
Based on an early gospel hymn, folk songwriter Pete Seeger sang about the battle African-Americans faced during the civil rights movement with his lyrical reworking of ‘We Shall Overcome.’ The adapted song became an anthem for the movement, with inspirational lyrics representing strength and overcoming adversity. Since its release, other popular artists, including Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, have covered the song.
Related: Overcome adversity with these protesting songs.
Catch the Wind – Donovan
A waltz tune focusing on coming to terms with unrequited love, ‘Catch the Wind’ was the first song folk musician Donovan ever wrote. In 1965, he released a stripped-down acoustic version featuring only his vocals, guitar, and light string work. Just three years later, in 1968, as the folk-rock movement took hold, he released a full band version of the single. This gave the tune the push it needed to become a folk classic, with many fellow artists covering it at shows.
Related: This song features on our list of the best campfire guitar songs.
Dirty Old Town – The Pogues
Celt-punk band The Pogues cover one of folk songwriter Ewan MacColl’s most gripping songs, ‘Dirty Old Town.’ The song pays homage to the industrial area MacColl grew up in, the smokey, gritty factory town of Salford in Lancashire, England. MacColl’s daughter, Kirsty, who tragically died in a boating accident, would go on to duet with The Pogues for their infamous Christmas tune, ‘Fairytale of New York.’
Related: Listen to more of the best harmonica songs.
Universal Soldier – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Released in 1964, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s ‘Universal Soldier’ is a moving commentary on the hardships of war. She wrote it after interacting with injured soldiers returning from serving in the Vietnam War. Fellow folk artist Donovan covered the track on his EP by the same name. Country artist Glen Campbell also covered the historically meaningful song in 1965.
Related: See more songs about soldiers.
Last Thing on My Mind – Tom Paxton
Based on a traditional folk song often sung by seaside port towns in places like Ireland, Tom Paxton’s ‘Last Thing on My Mind’ became an expressive rendition that stood out from his other work. Fans and fellow artists alike loved the tune. Both Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, two of country music’s finest, covered ‘Last Thing on My Mind’ in the mid-1960s.
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
The romantic Cohen classic ‘Suzanne’ originally came to fruition as a poem he wrote. He eventually adapted the stanzas into lyrics with melodies, and as the song took shape, it came to be about his good friend Suzanne Verdal. While living in Canada, he and the dancer often met and reminisced about the old days. The romantic nature of the tune caused people to wonder if they were physically involved, but both of them always denied the rumors.
Related: You can find this song on our classic 60s songs playlist.
The Circle Game – Joni Mitchell
Before Joni Mitchell ever released ‘The Circle Game’ on one of her albums, artists covered the reflective tune for their own projects. Buffy Sainte-Marie and Tom Rush released versions of the coming-of-age song in the late ’60s. Mitchell finally released the original version in 1970. She was good friends with Neil Young at the time of writing it. ‘The Circle Game’ responded to Young’s coming-of-age song, ‘Sugar Mountain.’
Related: You were destined to hear the best songs about fate.
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – The Byrds
International folk hero Bob Dylan originally wrote the infectious tune ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.’ Before he ever released it, rock band The Byrds released their own version (they also covered Dylan’s hit ‘Tamourine Man’). The Byrd’s cover was well-received by critics, with many claiming it was their best effort as far as Dylan tunes are concerned. Through the years, other artists such as Noel Gallagher and Joan Baez have also covered the song.
Diamonds and Rust – Joan Baez
Songwriter Joan Baez gained popularity in the states with her song ‘Diamonds and Rust,’ a tune focusing on memories of her romantic relationship with fellow songwriter Bob Dylan in the ’60s. The single would go on to be the biggest hit she wrote herself. Bob Dylan would go on to write songs about his relationship with Baez as well. Many speculate that ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ is about her.
Related: Listen to more shiny songs with diamonds in the lyrics.
Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon wrote ‘The Sound of Silence’ when he was just 21 years old. The first line of the song, ‘Hello darkness my old friend,’ came to him because he used to go into the bathroom and turn off the lights to better concentrate while playing the guitar. As he continued to work on the song, the message turned into a conversation about societal alienation and all the ways people communicate but still don’t connect with each other.
Related: Shh! Chill out with the best songs about silence.
Four Strong Winds – Neil Young
One of the few tunes Neil Young didn’t write, his cover of Ian Tyson’s ‘Four Strong Winds’ for his album Comes a Time represented a revisiting of his folk/country roots for the artist. The particularly melancholy song was even a bit of a stretch for Young’s yearning style of playing. But the cover picked up steam on the radio in the late ’70s and became an integral part of his live sets.
Puff the Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul and Mary
Originally written as a children’s story about a dragon in a faraway land who loved to play outside, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) was in college when his roommate thought he could write a poem better than the original story. Once Yarrow found the poem, he adapted it into his band’s hit single ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and gave his college buddy a writing credit on the track.
Related: Listen to more stories with the best story songs.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan
While Bob Dylan was dealing with a troubled romantic relationship in 1962, he took a folk traditional song, ‘Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone’ and turned it into his widely covered single ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.’ The traditional folk tune has had several makeovers besides Dylan’s. Dylan learned the song from fellow musician Paul Clayton whose rendition was called ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone?’. Mainstream artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and The Four Seasons would go on to release cover versions of Dylan’s track.
Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
Many consider Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’ the folk songwriter’s most popular song. Though Van Zandt released it in 1973, it would take ten years for the single to become a hit. The song topped the charts when country music outlaw duo Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson released a cover version in ’83.
Scarborough Fair – Martin Carthy
Medieval folk song ‘Scarborough Fair’ is one of the genre’s most enduring classics. It originated in the 1600s in England, when troubadours would sing the tune on the way to the popular Scarborough Fair every year. Modern folk icons like Ewan MacColl and Pete Seeger resurrected the historical tune with their own renditions. Simon & Garfunkel’s version was in the spirit of Martin Carthy, who taught them the song. The famous grouping of herbs mentioned in the tune, ‘parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,’ were common herbs in medieval times, signifying important virtues like comfort and the coming of death.
Related: Check out more easy songs to play on the recorder.
Indian War Whoop – John Hartford
John Hartford contributed ‘Indian War Whoop’ to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000. The tune features mostly instruments with occasional light vocals in the background during high, more expressive parts. Featured instruments on the track include guitar and violin. Producer T Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack for the film, which takes place during the Great Depression in Mississippi.
Related: Hear the rest of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? songs on our playlist.
Barbara Allen – Shirley Collins
Folk artist Shirley Collins has long loved the traditional song ‘Barbara Allen.’ After hearing it as a young girl, she fell in love with the tune and went on to record a few different versions of it. One of her earlier versions involved an Appalachian-style interpretation. She re-recorded the tune for her album, Heart’s Ease, where she revisits a more traditional version of ‘Barbara Allen.’
Little Boxes – Malvina Reynolds
Songwriter Malvina Reynolds wrote ‘Little Boxes’ in 1962, and a year later, folk singer Pete Seeger would turn the tune into a hit song when he released it in ’63. The song offers a satirical take on modern suburbia. It served as the perfect opening song to the hit TV show Weeds, which ran from 2005 to 2012.
Pink Moon – Nick Drake
While recording his final album, Nick Drake kept the project a secret until its release. Appearing on that album is Drake’s acoustic single steeped in tradition and lore, ‘Pink Moon.’ He came up with the title while browsing a dictionary featuring folklore terminology. The album by the same name was released just two years before his early death at 26 in 1974.
Related: See our rainbow of songs with a color in them.
No Regrets – Tom Rush
Now known as a classic folk “standard,” blues-folk artist Tom Rush released ‘No Regrets’ on his pinnacle 1968 album, The Circle Game. Many artists, including The Walker Brothers, covered this track, one of the acoustic genre’s most beloved tunes. Rush eventually recorded an updated version in 1974, featuring Carly Simon alongside him on vocals.
Early Morning Rain – Gordon Lightfoot
The “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Presley, put Gordon Lightfoot’s song ‘Early Morning Rain’ on the map and gave the folk songwriter his first hit when he performed a cover of the reflective tune during his televised Aloha from Hawaii concert. Lightfoot was inspired to write the song after feeling melancholy while saying goodbye to a friend at the airport. If you loved this (understandable), check out our pick of Gordon Lightfoot’s most endearing tracks.
Related: Splash over to our playlist of songs about the rain.
Mr. Bojangles – Jerry Jeff Walker
In 1968, Jerry Jeff Walker released ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ a long-beloved country/folk classic tune about a tap-dancing man. Walker was inspired to write the tune after meeting a man in jail who referred to himself as Mr. Bojangles and offered the inmates wild tales and dancing lessons. A diverse list of covers is associated with the single, including renditions by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Neil Diamond.
Pack Up Your Sorrows – Mimi and Richard Fariña
Singer Mimi Farina is sometimes better known as Joan Baez’s little sister. Her duo Mimi and Richard Fariña released two albums in the mid-’60s, with ‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’ being one of their most popular tracks. As the folk revival movement ended with the onslaught of Beatle mania in the states, the duo quit making music together. Their popular single lived on, though, with many artists, including Johnny Cash and Judy Collins performing covers.
Man of Constant Sorrow – Ralph Stanley
The swampy folk song ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ is a traditional folk standard covered by many over the decades. First released by Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, The Stanley Brothers was the first group to usher the early 1900s song into mainstream music. Other notable artists who’ve tried their hand at the song include Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It was also featured in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and performed by the movie’s fictional band Soggy Bottom Boys.
Shady Grove – Jerry Garcia & David Grisman
Breaking into the top 20 on the country albums charts in 1996, Jerry Garcia paired up with musician David Grisman for an all-acoustic album titled Shady Grove. The song by the same name focuses on the “lovers’ quarrels” people face in relationships despite being madly in love. The song features a lyrically traditional country-bluegrass format and acoustic instrumentation like the mandolin and banjo.
The City of New Orleans – Arlo Guthrie
Written as his wife slept next to him while on their way to visit her family, country/folk artist Steve Goodman originally wrote the reflective tune, ‘The City of New Orleans.’ Later covered by musical greats such as Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson, the song focuses on what it’s like traveling by train from Chicago to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Echo – Watchhouse
Appearing on their studio album Blindfaller, folk duo Watchhouse (formerly Mandolin Orange) reminds their listeners of the importance of the earth’s natural state with ‘Echo.’ Using different trees with metaphorical lyrics, they stress the importance of the environment as communities continue to expand.