31 Best Folk Songs Of All Time

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

Song Year:1963

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

Song Year:1958

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

Song Year:1966

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Decent list, but . . . .

    Tyson didn’t write Changes (it was Phil Ochs) and several writers/composers were omitted (especially Lemon Tree, by Will Holt, Mighty Quinn by Dylan.)

    Interesting choices. (I am familiar with all but three.)

  2. I love the folk song mentioned, but my favourite, “Eve of Distruction” by Barry McGuire was overlooked. Also missing is “We Shall Overcome”

  3. How about “Heres to the state of Mississippi”. Or “Eve of Destruction”. “The Mayor of Candor Lied”. “One Tin Soldier”. “The Rock”. “Taxi”

  4. Now I know what a folk song is. Folk songs are songs written in America during the past 100 years that became well known because a recording of it was released on vinyl before nearly anyone had heard or sung it). Also, folks songs are songs that are nearly never sung today (especially by groups of people, such as young Americans, most of whom have never heard most of these rapidly being forgotten songs).

    Thanks though.

    I don’t think I know Jennife’s rabbit. I’ll listen soon.

  5. Fine job on this list; I knew all but three of ’em.

    An omissions: Mighty Quinn, by Dylan; the tune to Bells of Rhymney, was written by Pete Seeger (I THINK!).

    But, except that, I liked the list and mostly agree with all of ’em.

    Joe S Cline
    Charlotte, NC

  6. Leonard Cohen didn’t write Passing Through. It was written by Dick Blakeslee in 1949 and recorded by Pete Seeger and many others, long before Leonard Cohen recorded it.

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