The future of music

50 Best Folk Songs (Most Essential)

December 11, 2023
best folk songs

I’ve carefully selected the best folk songs, a collection that resonates with the rich storytelling and timeless melodies of this beloved genre.

This article is an exploration of the songs that capture the essence of folk music, with its deep roots and universal themes.

Table of Contents

Top folk songs

  • “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez
  • “Last Goodbye” by Jeff Buckley
  • “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins
  • “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten
  • “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan
  • “Box of Rain” by Grateful Dead
  • “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” by Woody Guthrie
  • “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris
  • “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian

1. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez

“Diamonds & Rust” is a folk song written, composed, and performed by Joan Baez in 1974-1975.

Lyrically the song recounts a surprising phone call from an old lover, which sends Baez a decade back in time to a “crummy” hotel in Greenwich Village.

She recalls giving him a pair of cufflinks and infers that memories bring “diamonds and rust”.

Baez later stated that the lyrics refer to her relationship with Bob Dylan.

2. “Last Goodbye” by Jeff Buckley

This 1994 folk song was Buckley’s most commercially successful song in the US, peaking at  number 19 on the U.S. Billboard Alternative Songs chart.

It was originally titled “Unforgiven”, and had a more classic rock feel and instrumentation.

A music video was created for “Last Goodbye”, which showed Buckley and the rest of the band playing the song on a stage while video was projected onto them and the wall behind them.

3. “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins

First recorded by Judy Collins, this popular folk song appeared on the US singles chart during the fall of 1968 and it soon became one of her best-known songs.

In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the folk song at number 170 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs and, in early 1969, it won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.

4. “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten

Freight Train” is an American folk song written by Elizabeth Cotten in the early 20th century.

By Cotten’s own account, she composed “Freight Train” as a teenager and was inspired by the sound of the trains rolling in on the tracks near her home in North Carolina.

She was a one-time nanny for folk singer Peggy Seeger, who took this song with her to England, where it became popular in folk music circles.

5. “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash

This 1969 song by the American folk rock group Crosby, Stills, and Nash was featured in many different popular movies at the time of its release.

Lyrically, the folk song is about two lovers who don’t know what to do in a psychological setting.

6. “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wrote this song in the summer of 1962, and its lyrical structure is modeled after the question and answer form of traditional ballads.

The lyrics communicate heavy themes of suffering, pollution, and warfare.

Dylan has said that all of the lyrics were taken from the initial lines of songs that “he thought he would never have time to write.”

7. “Box of Rain” by Grateful Dead

This folk song has remained a fan favorite since it was released in 1970, and is drawn from folk and country roots.

It was the first song to feature Phil Lesh as lead vocalist, and so the crowd would often shout “Let Phil sing!” to hear the song.

According to writer Hunter, Lesh “wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words.”

8. “I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore” by Woody Guthrie

In this old folk song the singer laments the difficulties that life presents him.

Guthrie said it owes its inspiration to a gospel song he heard on his visits to migrant camps.

The gospel song was telling them to accept the hunger and the disease and to not fight back; he wrote his version in response to this, in an attempt to capture more effectively the “unrelieved anger” of the Dust Bowl refugees.

9. “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris

This popular folk song has served as a signature tune for Harris despite never being released as a single, and recounts her feelings of grief following the death of country rock star and mentor Gram Parsons.

She did not write again about Parsons’ death in such a direct way until “The Road”, a track released in 2011.

In her early career, Harris toured with Gram Parsons and sang on his two solo albums.

10. “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian

Ian wrote the lyrics of this 1975 folk song on the basis of a The New York Times article.

With pop and soft rock influences, the song is about a social outcast in high school.

Critics have regarded “At Seventeen” as a certain type of anthem and, despite her initial reluctance to perform the popular folk song live, Ian promoted it at various appearances and it has been included on compilation and live albums.

11. “Rich Woman” by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

Commonly cited as the “musical collaboration of the decade”, this folk song is one of the classics.

Country singer Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant won the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals with their version of this popular folk song.

The single was prominently featured in the motion picture Mad Money, starring Diane Keaton, Katie Holmes and Queen Latifah, as constant background music throughout the film.

12. “The Bourgeois Blues” by Lead Belly

Lead Belly wrote this blues song in 1937 in response to the segregation that he faced during a visit to Washington, D.C.

Regarded as one of his best works, it rails against racism, the Jim Crow laws, and the conditions of contemporary African Americans in the south of the US.

Questions have since been raised over his role in the Communist Party and whether the song was used to further the party’s political goals.

13. “Coyote” by Joni Mitchell

It is said that this folk song was inspired by Sam Shepard, with whom Mitchell was briefly linked during Bob Dylan’s 1975/1976 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. 

Prior to the performance McGuinn states “Joni wrote this song about this tour and on this tour and for this tour.”

In biographer David Yaffe’s book Reckless Daughter, Mitchell describes how she “had a flirtation” with Sam Shepard.

14. “Sometimes I feel Like A Motherless Child” by Odetta

This folk song dates back to the era of slavery in the US and is commonly heard during the Civil rights movement.

An early performance of the song was in the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Odetta performed a cover of the song at Carnegie Hall in 1960, causing the old folk song to shoot back to popularity with its important message.

15. “Return of the Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons

This folk song with rock/blues roots was written by Gram Parsons and poet Tom Brown.

It depicts the experiences of the protagonist during a road trip across the US.

Parsons sang with the participation of Emmylou Harris backed with the main core of the TCB Band.

The decision of Harris’ participation came when Parsons saw the singer performing at a Washington D.C folk club.

16. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary

Puff, the Magic Dragon” is a folk song written by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary from a poem by Leonard Lipton.

Lipton wrote the poem about a dragon in 1959 and, when Yarrow found it, he wrote the lyrics to the popular 1965 song.

After the song was released, Yarrow searched for Lipton so that he could give him credit for the song’s lyrics.

17. “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Simon and Garfunkel

This folk song, written by Paul Simon and sung solely by Art Garfunkel, has lyrics about finding a lover.

However, Simon once characterized the matter as being about a “belief,” rather than about a specific individual.

The popular folk song has been covered many times by notable artists, and remains a staple of Art Garfunkel’s live sets.

He regards it as one of the most challenging songs to perform, yet one of his favorite.

18. “Oh Very Young” by Cat Stevens

“Oh Very Young” is a song composed by Cat Stevens, with folk-rock and pop-rock influences.

It was released on his 1974 album “Buddha and the Chocolate Box:, as well as several later “Best of…” and “Greatest Hits” compilation albums.

The popular folk song reached number 10 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and number two on Easy Listening.

19. “75 Septembers” by Cheryl Wheeler

This folk song has a beautiful meaning; it was written for Wheeler’s father’s 75th birthday, who was born Sept. 7, 1915.

She didn’t find any inspiration for the song until she found out that the Yellow Cab company was founded that same year.

Cheryl began thinking about how the world has changed during her father’s life – although it bothers her to see childhood areas get commercialized, she never heard her father complain.

20. “Get Right With God” by Lucinda Williams

This popular folk song earned Williams the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 2002.

“Get Right With God” received excellent critical acclaim.

AllMusic said of the hit; “Lucinda Williams, an expert conjurer of Southern imagery, sees the light with the shuffling backwoods, revivalist stomp of ‘Get Right With God’”, while Spin referred to it as an “odd mock-gospel worksong”.

21. “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young

AllMusic, along with many other critics, strongly praised this folk song, stating that the song epitomized the album of the same name and “the power of nature and music, as well as a feeling of celebrating lifetime love are the focal points here, and Young captures it all in his typically literate, artless style.”

It also achieved great commercial success, reaching number 36 on the UK Singles Chart.

22. “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie

“This Land Is Your Land” is one of the US’ most popular folk songs, and has since been added to the National Recording Registry.

Its lyrics were written by Guthrie in 1940 in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”.

When Guthrie grew tired of hearing Kate Smith sing the song on the radio in the 1930s, he sarcastically called his song “God Blessed America for Me” before renaming it “This Land Is Your Land”.

23. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

This folk song by the famous Bob Dylan has been described as a protest song and is well-known for posing a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war, and freedom.

In 1994, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and , ten years later, it was ranked number 14 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

24. “City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman

This country folk song was written and performed by Goodman, with lyrics describing a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans in a nostalgic way.

Goodman got the idea while traveling to visit his wife’s family.

An article in the September 2017 issue of Trainsmagazine explains the writing and recording of the song and includes a biographical sketch of Goodman.

25. “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” by Pete Seeger

“If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” is a protest folk song written in 1949 by Seeger and Lee Hays in support of the Progressive movement, and was first recorded by the Weavers, a folk quartet.

They first performed the song in New York City at a dinner for the leaders of the Communist Party of the US who were then on trial, charged with advocating the overthrow of the US government.

26. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” by The Kingston Trio

This is a modern folk-style song, inspired lyrically by the traditional Cossack folk song “Koloda-Duda”.

In 2010, the New Statesman listed “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs”, making it an important piece of history.

Seeger found inspiration for the song in 1955 while he was on a plane to a concert at Oberlin College, one of the few venues which would hire him during the McCarthy era.

27. “Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot

“Early Morning Rain” is a folk song written, composed, and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in 1964.

Lyrically, the song describes a man, down on his luck, standing at an airport and observing the takeoff of a Boeing 707 jet airliner.

Lightfoot reflects that capturing and describing this narrative so beautifully was due to his creative improvement as a songwriter.

28. “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen

Cohen wrote this folk song, first published as a poem in 1966, in the 1960s.

Many other artists of varying genres have recorded versions, and it has since become one of the most covered songs in Cohen’s catalog.

In 2021, it was ranked at No. 284 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and remains as a popular folk song to this day.

29. “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger

Seeger published this folk song in 1948 and began performing it.

Seeger played his version to the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, and gave the civil rights movement its anthem.

This made the folk song incredibly important and historical, explaining why it is still well-known and well-loved today.

30. “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia

Ian Tyson (of the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia) noted that he composed the song in about 20 minutes in his then manager’s New York apartment in 1961.

A significant part of the early 1960s folk revival, the song is a sad and sincere reflection on a failing relationship.

The song has a clear Canadian context, with a mention of the province Alberta; Because of this, it is considered Alberta’s unofficial anthem.

31. “Last Thing on my Mind” by Tom Paxton

This folk song, written by Tom Paxton in the early 1960s and recorded in 1964, is based on the traditional lament song “The Leaving of Liverpool”.

It was covered by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1967, increasing the popularity of the folk song massively.

Their version hit number seven on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, the first of an almost uninterrupted string of top ten singles over the next several years.

32. “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell

This folk song by Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was written and composed in 1966.

Mitchell has said that the folk song was written as a response to the song “Sugar Mountain” by Neil Young, whom she had befriended on the Canadian folk-music circuit in the mid-60s.

“The Circle Game” offers a hopeful conclusion than Young’s song, and shot quickly to popularity.

33. “Tom Dooley” by The Kingston Trio

This traditional North Carolina folk song is based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina by Tom Dula (pronounced “Dooley”).

An extremely famous murder ballad, this popular hit version was recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio and reached number 1 on Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

Members of the Western Writers of America selected it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.

34. “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” by Stacy Denny

Denny originally recorded this popular folk song as a demo in 1967, singing and playing guitar on the track.

In 1968, Denny joined the folk-rock band Fairport Convention and recorded the song on her second album with the band; this version had more of a rock influence.

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” became a signature song for both Denny and Fairport Convention, and has been covered by many popular music artists.

35. “Goodnight Irene” by The Weavers

In 1950, The Weavers took this song to the top of the charts.

Lyrically, this folk song tells of the singer’s troubled past with his love, Irene, and expresses his sorrow and frustration.

Multiple verses refer explicitly to suicidal ideation, most famously in the line “sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” which was taken as inspiration for the title of the 1964 Ken Kesey novel “Sometimes a Great Notion”.

36. “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded and released this old folk song in 1964.

Despite not being an immediate hit at the time of its release, it did collect attention within the contemporary folk music community.

Sainte-Marie said she approached the writing of the song from the perspective of a student writing an essay for a professor who didn’t see eye-to-eye with her point of view, hoping to present him with an alternative perspective.

37. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by Bob Dylan

In the liner notes of the original release, Nat Hentoff coins the song “a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better … as if you were talking to yourself.”

It was written by Dylan around the time that Suze Rotolo indefinitely prolonged her stay in Italy.

The melody is based on the traditional song “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone”, which was taught to Dylan by folk singer Paul Clayton.

38. “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel

It is said that this folk song was written by Paul Simon over several months in 1963 and 1964.

The duo’s audition of the song led to a record deal with Columbia Records, with the original acoustic version being recorded in 1964 for their album “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M”.

The album was a commercial failure and ultimately led to the duo sadly disbanding.

39. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot

Lightfoot wrote this folk song to commemorate the sinking of the bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior in1975.

He drew his inspiration from Newsweek’s article on the event, “The Cruelest Month”, and considers this song to be his finest work.

Lightfoot recounted how he had agonized over possible inaccuracies while trying to write the lyrics until Lenny Waronker, his long-time producer and friend, simply advised him to “just tell a story”.

40. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” by Arlo Guthrie

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, commonly known as “Alice’s Restaurant”, is a satirical talking blues song released in 1967 by Arlo Guthrie.

The song is a protest against the Vietnam War draft, in the form of a comically exaggerated but true story from Guthrie’s own life: he is arrested and convicted of dumping trash illegally, which endangers his suitability for the military draft.

The work became Guthrie’s signature song and has been periodically re-released with updated lyrics.

41. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger

This folk song was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s and first recorded in 1959 by himself.

The lyrics consist of the beginning of the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

It quickly became an international hit in late 1965 when it was altered by the American folk rock group the Byrds.

42. “Thirsty Boots” by Eric Andersen

“Thirsty Boots” is a civil-rights-era folk song by Eric Andersen, released in 1966. 

According to the liner notes, the song “was written to a civil rights worker-friend. Having never gone down to Mississippi myself, I wrote the song about coming back.”

One of Andersen’s best known, the folk has been covered by artists such as Judy Collins.

Collins has claimed that Andersen wrote the song’s last verse on a matchbook cover while in her bathroom!

43. “There but for Fortune” by Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs wrote this folk song in 1963 and recorded it twice, for two albums.

The song consists of four verses, each one of which ends with the line “there but for fortune may go you or I”.

The first verse is about a prisoner, the second describes a hobo, the third verse a drunk who stumbles out of a bar, and the final describes a country that has been bombed.

44. “Across the Great Divide” by Kate Wolf

Kate Wolf was an important American folk singer and songwriter.

Though her career was relatively short, she had a significant impact on the folk music scene, and many musicians continue to cover her songs.

“Across the Great Divide” was covered by artists such as Nanci Griffith and Kyle Carey.

45. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band (Robbie Robertson)

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a folk song written by Robbie Robertson and recorded by the roots rock group The Band. 

The song lyrically relates the economic and social distress experienced by a poor white Southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War, when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia.

46. “The Dutchman” by Michael Peter Smith

This folk song, written by Michael Peter Smith in 1968, was popularized by Liam Clancy, Brendan Grace and Steve Goodman.

The song is about an elderly couple living in Amsterdam – Margaret and the title character.

The Dutchman is senile, and Margaret cares for him with a sadness over what has happened to him over the years; It is a tale of unconditional love.

47. “No Letting Go” by Wayne Wonder

“Matty Groves”, also known as “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” or “Little Musgrave”, is a ballad thought to originate in Northern England.

It describes an adulterous love between a young man and a noblewoman that ends when the woman’s husband discovers and kills them.

48. “Pastures of Plenty” by Woody Guthrie

“Pastures of Plenty” is a 1941 folk song written and performed by Woody Guthrie.

It describes the travails and dignity of migrant workers in North America, and is evocative of the world described in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The tune is based on the ballad “Pretty Polly”, a traditional English folk song from the British Isles that was also well known in North America.

49. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot

This folk song is a story that was written, composed, and first performed in 1966 by Gordon Lightfoot, who released his original recording of it in 1967.

The song was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to celebrate the Canadian Centennial in 1967. 

“Canadian Railroad Trilogy” describes the building of the trans-Canada Canadian Pacific Railway, a historic moment.

50. “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Roger

Written by the famed Stan Rogers, this folk song was intended as a motivational song and is credited with having saved at least one life

It has become a folk standard, performed by numerous artists, and chronicles the sinking of the fictional ship Mary Ellen Carter somewhere in the North Atlantic.

Best Folk Songs – Final Thoughts

You’ve finished the journey through the generations of old folk songs, and I hope you enjoyed it!

The way that folk dances through the genres, fitting in between country, rock and blues, is something that should be celebrated.

These songs will help you to do just that.

Similar Playlists:

Best Country Songs

Best 70s Rock Songs

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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