Folk music is incredibly varied, which makes compiling a list of the best songs challenging. But, I love a challenge, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job on this round-up! So here are some of the best folk songs of all time.
Wimoweh / The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens
Song Year: 1961
‘Wimoweh’ is better known to many as ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’
It’s a folk song with a fascinating history. Solomon Linda first recorded it while working as a janitor for a record company.
The track would have fallen into obscurity, but folk enthusiast Alan Lomax rescued it. He gave it to Pete Seeger, who misheard the Zulu title, ‘Mbube,’ and turned it into ‘Wimoweh.’
Seeger and many other prominent folk revivalists covered the song. The Tokens, with their English-Language ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ rendition, made it a hit.
If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Song Year: 1963
Pete Seeger wrote ‘If I Had A Hammer’ for his band ‘The Weavers.’ But the song’s reputation even then ensured many artists covered it.
Like many folk revival era songs, it championed a cause. Here it’s a covert expression of the end of the Vietnam War as the singers envisage a world that lives in harmony.
Four Strong Winds by Ian and Sylvia Tyson
Song Year: 1986
Famously, Ian Tyson wrote ‘Four Strong Winds’ in about 20 minutes. He was visiting New York when he wrote it, but that didn’t stop him from producing an evocative piece about Canada’s temperamental seasons.
Like many folk song, there’s an aching quality to ‘Four Strong Winds’ that stems from the nostalgia inherent in the lyrics.
Tyson and his then-wife Sylvia recorded the song in 1963, and it was an immediate success, not only in Canada but across North America.
Early Morning Rain by Gordon Lightfoot
Song Year: 1966
Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian folk artist with a gift for creating not only some of the best folk songs ever, but also some of the most poetic ones.
Lightfoot composed ‘Early Morning Rain’ while living in Los Angeles. He was homesick for Canada and regularly drove to the airport to watch the airplanes. That melancholy translated into the song’s minor key and mournful lyrics.
Diamonds and Rust by Joan Baez
Song Year: 1975
Diamonds and Rust’ is another excellent folk song based on history. This time the history is personal, as Baez recalls a conversation with a former lover.
The lover alluded to was Bob Dylan, not named in the song. Far from being upset by this, Dylan was flattered at his inclusion in what many consider one of the best folk songs ever.
Don’t Think Twice by Bob Dylan
Like many of the best folk composers, it’s difficult to reduce Bob Dylan to a single song.
Like many of Dylan’s best songs, this one pays homage to a much older folk song, ‘Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone.’
It also pays tribute to fellow folk artist Paul Clayton, integrating lyrics from the similarly referential ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone.’
In Dylan’s hands, the melody becomes a reflection on the messiness, and sometimes fractiousness of romantic love.
Tom Dooley by The Kingston Trio
Another dark but compelling folk song is the Kingston Trio’s ‘Tom Dooley.’
The song is based on the real-life murder of Laura Foster by her lover Tom Dula in 1866. The murder received widespread coverage at the time and was immortalized in a poem by Thomas C. Land.
Land’s version of events isn’t strictly accurate, but it inspired The Kingston Trio and remains the best-known version of this North Carolina murder ballad.
This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
Song Year: 1940
Guthrie always claimed he wrote ‘This Land is Your Land’ After getting frustrated with the equally famous ‘God Bless America.’
Guthrie felt Irving Berlin’s piece glossed over many of America’s problems, like unequal wealth and land distribution.
‘This Land Is Your Land’ was Guthrie’s answer. It quickly became hit with fans. It was so popular that The Travellers rewrote it with Canadian lyrics, just to say they had a national version, too.
Turn, Turn, Turn by Pete Seeger and Judy Collins
Judy Collins was an astonishing folk artist in her own right. Here, she sings Seeger’s ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ with the composer.
Seeger’s text comes from The Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a thoughtful reflection on man’s purpose on earth. Without ever becoming political, it also works as a meditation on the unrest that permeated the 1960s.
Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan
Song Year: 1965
It’s impossible to talk about folk music without discussing the contribution made to the genre by Bob Dylan.
‘Tambourine Man’ stands out not only as one of the top folk songs, but because of its bizarre imagery. It’s surreal and poetic. That’s unsurprising since Dylan’s eclectic inspiration ran the gamut from Rimbaud the poet to film-maker Fellini.
The M.T.A. by The Kingston Trio
Song Year: 1959
Originally, ‘The M.T.A.’ was the electoral anthem of politician Walter O’Brian. Unluckily for O’Brian, he lost the election.
That was in 1949. Ten years later, The Kingston Trio revised the song. They playfully swapped out the electoral candidacy names depending on where and when they played.
In their hands, the story of luckless Charlie on the M.T.A. got people singing, and the song quickly became one of the best folk songs of all time.
Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger
Song Year: 1955
One of the best folk songs of all time is Pete Seeger’s moving ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone.’
Seeger loved collecting songs from different countries, and this song is a classic example. It marries an Irish folk melody to adapted lyrics of a Cossack marching song.
But Seeger wasn’t satisfied with his version of the song, so he gave it to Joe Hickerson. Hickerson was a summer camp counselor, and between him and the campers, they came up with the famously haunting final verse.
Afterward, Seeger always ensured Hickerson received some of the song’s royalties.
Small Circle of Friends by Phil Ochs
Despite producing some of the best folk songs of all time, Phil Ochs often gets forgotten by folk revival historians.
He was famous for his scathing satire of America.
‘Small Circle of Friends’ is an excellent example. It takes inspiration from the murder of Kitty Genovese, but you wouldn’t guess that from the jaunty tune. Purportedly, Ochs heard a couple dismissing the murder as not of interest to anyone who didn’t know the young woman; That observation became the basis of the title and chorus.
Circle Game by Joni Mitchell
Song Year: 1966
Canada produced a surprising number of talented musicians during the American Folk Revival.
Joni Mitchell is no exception. In ‘Circle Game,’ she explores a theme that dogged many folk songs of the time; The rapid passing of time. Like others, she blends it with nostalgia for a past that no longer exists. The result is a haunting and memorable melody.
The Rock Island Line by Lead Belly
Song Year: 1957
Clarence Wilson wrote ‘Rock Island Line’ in 1929. But it was 1957 before Lead Belly made it famous.
He and Alan Lomax learned it from a prison gang and brought it into the popular consciousness. Many versions of ‘Rock Island Line’ exist, including a more whimsical rendition by The Weavers.
But Lead Belly’s version stands out for how closely it sticks to the original story of a train that managed to be in two places at once.
Irene Goodnight by The Weavers
Song Year: 1950
‘Irene Goodnight’ is also a Lead Belly Song. But the 1950 recording by The Weavers transformed it into a popular folk song.
It’s lyrical and occasionally dark. But you don’t notice because the waltz rhythm of the music distracts you.
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy by Pete Seeger
Song Year: 1967
Before it became one of the best folk songs of all time, ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ was censored by The Smothers Brothers.
Seeger wrote the song reflecting on his World War Two experience. But many Vietnam soldiers and government officials saw it as a commentary on the ongoing war in Vietnam.
It made the song resonate, but it didn’t make it popular with politicians.
Changes by Ian and Sylvia Tyson
Song Year: 1966
Another Canadian folk song to shape the sound of the sixties folk revival was Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s ‘Changes' (originally written by Phil Ochs).
Like other songs by Tyson, this is melancholy and nostalgic. It’s a peculiar combination of a moving love song and a commentary on the rapidly changing twentieth century.
Lemon Tree by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Song Year: 1962
Peter, Paul, and Mary are another band that produced some of the best folk songs of all time.
‘Lemon Tree’, written by Will Holt, follows the tradition of regretful love ballads through the ages. The titular fruit tree is an apt metaphor for disappointed love.
But there’s irony there, too; Originally, the musicians took their inspiration from a jaunty Brazilian folk melody, where the speaker uses ‘lemon tree’ as an affectionate endearment for his sweetheart.
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie by Lead Belly
Song Year: 1946
Talking about ‘Bring Me Li’l Water Sylvie,’ Lead Belly liked to tell audiences he wrote the song based on memories of his uncle. He was a field worker and used to shout regularly for his wife to bring him water.
It’s fast-paced, but even moving at a clip, you can hear the affection in the singer’s voice.
Blown’ in the Wind by The Chad Mitchell Trio
Song Year: 1963
‘Blown’ in the Wind’ is a song by Bob Dylan. But it became so famous so quickly, that many artists recorded versions.
It’s a powerful examination of humanity and our civil liberties. It’s also a philosophical song with poetry for lyrics. No wonder it became one of the most popular folk songs ever.
The Bells of Rhymney by The Byrds
Song Year: 1965
Idris Davies wrote the lyrics to ‘Bells of Rhymney’ in 1938. His poem was the result of what he perceived as the failure of the 1926 general strike, coupled with a then-recent coal mining catastrophe.
Seeger put it to music, but it’s the version sung by The Byrds that people know best.
It’s eerie and evocative because of its powerful reinvention of the rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons.’
Guantanamera by The Weavers
Song Year: 1957
Pete Seeger and his band The Weavers collected many foreign-language songs. Based on a poem by José Martí, ‘Guantanamera’ is one of the most famous examples.
It made waves when The Weavers released it because it was a Cuban poem by a Cuban composer debuting on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But like many of Seeger’s best songs, this one features a speaker who longs for a peaceful future.
The Little Black Fly by The Travellers
Song Year: 1960
Some of the best folk songs ever speak on serious causes, like:
- The Vietnam War
- Civil Rights
‘The Little Black Fly’ is more whimsical. Here Canadian folk group The Travellers sings about the menace of the biting North Ontario black fly.
What makes ‘Little Black Fly’ interesting is how the group exaggerates ‘Canadian Raising’ in the chorus. That’s the distinct vowel sounds that make Canadian accents distinctive.
Passing Through by Leonard Cohen
Song Year: 1979
‘Passing Through’ sometimes gets overlooked when discussing the best folk songs of all time.
Like many folk songs of its time, it’s preoccupied with fostering peace between races and nations.
But it’s also linguistically playful, something seldom seen in these folk songs, which makes it memorable.
Pussy Willows, Cat-Tails by Gordon Lightfoot
Song Year: 1968
‘Pussy Willows, Cat-Tails’ is another example of how many folk songs have poetry for lyrics.
Here, Gordon Lightfoot pays homage to the variability of Canadian seasons. His descriptions unforgettably capture their characters for listeners everywhere.
I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore by Phil Ochs
Song Year: 1965
Phil Ochs died young, and his career was tragically short. But the songs he wrote and sang at that time made a dramatic impact on society.
‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ is a damning indictment of the Vietnam War. Written in 1965, it's a sharp contrast to Seeger’s peace anthems because it conveys the exhaustion, frustration, and unhappiness many returning veterans experienced.
Old Man Atom by Ozie Waters
Song Year: 1950
Sometimes called ‘Talking Atom Blues,’ ‘Old Man Atom’ makes an unlikely candidate for one of the best folk songs of all time.
It’s distinctive for its blend of folk and blues music, especially for using near-speech patterns in the verses.
‘Old Man Atom’ is a damning condemnation of the atom bomb. Debuting at the beginning of the Cold War made the song and anyone who sang it unpopular, but it didn’t lessen its impact on listeners.
Go Tell Aunt Rhody by Woody Guthrie
‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ has a storied history. It started as a somber gavotte in a Baroque French opera.
Eventually, it morphed into one of America’s best-loved folksongs about the death of a goose.
Despite the dirge-like tonality prevalent in some versions of the song, the titular Aunt Rhody doesn’t seem too upset about her dead poultry. After all, she was going to make it into a featherbed.
The Mighty Quinn by Manfred Mann
Song Year: 1968
What makes ‘The Mighty Quinn’ a song for the ages is its singability.
In large part, the folk revival was about bringing people together in song, something Pete Seeger was especially famous for.
‘Mighty Quinn’ does this in spades. It’s catchy and fast-moving, and anyone can sing along.
Jennifer’s Rabbit by Tom Paxton
Song Year: 2009
We end on a whimsical note. ‘Jennifer’s Rabbit’ by Tom Paxton sounds like the musical love-child of ‘Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Owl and the Pussycat.’
It’s surreal in the way only a handful of the best folk songs of all time are. It’s also a masterful exploration of how strange dreams can be. More than that, it’s a loving tribute to the innocence of childhood and the importance of preserving it.
Top Folk Songs, Final Thoughts
The best folk songs ever vary wildly. What they have in common is a good tune and a meaningful story.
Many of them also have a pet cause, like peace in our time or the environment. But it’s not a requirement.
What makes these great songs great is that they are music written by the people for the people; Years later, we’re still singing them.