While it's always tough to settle on a “best of” list, we can say with some confidence that these are among the best folk songs ever written.
Whether you are 8 or 80, chances are that you have heard these folk songs that we have listed below. They are the 9 best folk songs ever written. What is known as folk music today is the combination of traditional music and social or political values. Folk songs have birthed different sub-genres, with the most popular being folk rock. In this post, we will consider some of these classic tunes.
The songs in this article cut across different genres of folk music. I loved them when I was a kid, and I still love them today. They have stood the test of time and many people still listen to them. They all tell a story and are worth listening to even today.
The Best Folk Songs of the Last 100 Years
Given that folk music is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, settling on a “best of” list is nearly impossible.
Which is why we had to narrow our focus on music written in the 20th and 21st centuries – the last 100 years, more or less.
Within this time-frame, these are some of the best folk songs ever written:
1. Turn! Turn! Turn! – Pete Seeger
The first song on our list is this beautiful song created by the famous Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. Although the song was made some years earlier, it wasn't until the early 1960s that it was performed by Seeger.
Pete Seeger is one of the most influential and iconic figures of all time, especially with regard to music. He is reputedly one of the founders of the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s.
This song has a lovely beat, with most of the words from the Bible book of Ecclesiastes. As the title and the chorus indicate the song talks about how everything under the sun has a purpose and the role time plays in destiny.
This song remains one of the most popular folk songs of all time and has been remixed and played by different people other than the original singer. One of my favorite versions is the rendition by the folk-rock group The Byrds. Their interpretation makes the song veer into the rock spectrum.
Others have retained the original folk sound of the song without adding any riffs or rock sounds. One of the favorite covers is that by Judy Collins in 1966. Her voice elevates the song and is very moving when listened to on headphones.
2. Blowin' in the Wind – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is the brain behind this song. It is no surprise to have it on this list as Bob Dylan remains an icon of music and folk music in particular. He composed this beautiful song in 1962 and performed to critical acclaim in 1963.
Growing up, I admittedly didn't listen to a lot of Bob's music and only in later years did I come across him and gain an incredible amount of respect for his talent and music. I first heard this song from Peter, Paul, and Mary, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Imagine the feeling of listening to the original rendition from the composer.
As with most folk songs, Blowin' in the Wind tells a story. This time, the song questions the problems that face the human race. It is a thoughtful song that resonates even down to our time. The answer to these questions is “Blowin' in the Wind” according to Dylan. What this means is open to interpretation, and until now, nobody knows the definitive meaning of Bob's answer.
This song has been used in civil rights movements and anti-war movements. Of all the songs by Bob Dylan, this song is widely regarded to be the most iconic and most covered.
3. Goodnight Irene – Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter
Goodnight Irene by Huddie William Ledbetter was created and composed in 1933. It is one of the most beautiful folk songs of all time, which is why it isn't surprising that many artists, including some legends of the industry, have taken the song and made it into their version. It has undergone plenty of redoing, which is a testament to the beauty and appeal of the piece.
One of the most popular redoing of the song is that by The Weavers. They recorded their version of the song a year after Huddie William Ledbetter died.
The version by The Weavers is arguably more popular than the original version and it spent more than 25 weeks on the Billboard. Therefore, most folks actually sing along to this version by The Weavers than those from the original singer.
The immense success of this song made other popular artists to also take it and give it a spin of their own. Some of the most popular artists that remade the song include Frank Sinatra and Gayten. This beautiful song, even after their spins on it became a chart topping hit.
4. Where Have All the Flowers Gone? – Pete Seeger
If you love folk music, then Paul Seeger would be high on your list of the most iconic folk musicians. Well, he already has a song on this list of the best folk songs of all time. This time it is none other than this hit.
One unique thing about this particular song is that it took about five years and two artists' writing for it to be created. Paul Seeger began writing the song in 1955, and although it was completed then, Joe Hickerson also added some more lyrics to the already great song in 1960. The lyrics were inspired on a trip to Oberlin College in 1955 after the blacklisting of The Weavers in the McCarthy Era.
The first three verses of the song were written by Paul while the last two by Hickerson.
The verses of this song were first glimpsed in a magazine prior to Seeger performing the song in '64.
This song remains one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking folk songs from Paul Seeger. To show the influence and genius of this song, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.
As with all great songs, this song has spawned different versions, some of which are from famous groups like The Kingston Trio. Additionally, is has been translated into some of the most spoken languages on the planet including French and German.
5. Scarborough Fair – Simon & Garfunkel
Aside from Dylan and some of the others mentioned so far, Simon & Garfunkel contributed a lot to the world of folk music. Scarborough Fair from Simon and Garfunkel is a unique spin on a traditional folk song. The song is a funny song that highlights the futility of love and tells a story.
The title refers to Scarborough in Yorkshire. It tells the story of a man who, perhaps in a bid to get out of a relationship, asks his professed lover to carry out some tasks that are certainly impossible, at least at the time. For instance, she is instructed to make a shirt without seams or using a needle. Success at the tasks would make her his one true love while failure would be punished by a break in the relationship.
As with most traditional folk songs, there are several versions of this song. Some of the versions are sung as a duet in which the roles are swapped. There is a lot of debate about the origins of the song, but there is no denying that Simon and Garfunkel's spin on the song is one of the best versions ever.
6. Mr. Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan dominates this list, and for good reason – no one has had the influence over folk music as much as he did. This song is arguably the most popular song from him and is one of the most well-known songs of all time. Even people that do not really fancy folk music know this song and catch themselves humming along when it comes on.
The song is unique among Dylan's songs because it is the only one that he wrote that managed to top the charts in the USA.
The history of the song is quite interesting as well. Dylan composed this song on a road trip with friends from NYC to San Francisco. On their way to San Francisco, they smoked a lot of weed. How did they never run out? Well, before embarking on the trip, they mailed weed to themselves. Therefore, all they had to do was visit the post office and pick it up.
Although written earlier, this song was eventually performed by Bob in 1965. From that time until now, Mr. Tambourine remained and remains one of the most iconic folk songs of all time and one of the most commercially successful songs from an incredibly talented singer.
7. Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel
Up next on this list is the ‘Sounds of Silence' by Simon and Garfunkel. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular songs, not just in folk music, but across genres. It has been translated into different languages, has been played in countless movies, is used as a meme, and is one of the most culturally impactful songs of the 20th century.
Written by Simon and Garfunkel between 1963 and '64, this song, upon its initial release was a failure, at least commercially. It was largely ignored by many people. After the failure of this song, the duo split. Perhaps due to the split and other related issues, the song began to receive some airplay on radio stations along the east coast.
It was then remixed and re-released in 1965 to critical acclaim. After Simon and Garfunkel got back together, they released the song on their album bearing the same title. This time, it became a smash hit and remains one of the most popular folk songs ever sang.
In 2013, the Library of Congress added this song to the National Recording Registry as a mark of its cultural and historical significance.
Today, the song has been remixed and covered by scores of musicians across genres.
8. This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
A list of the best folk songs would be incomplete without a song from Woody Guthrie on it. Across the world, This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie is certainly one of the most popular folk songs of all time. At a point, it was so popular in the USA that it was unofficially referred to as the country” national anthem.
It's a song with a funny history. Woody actually wrote the song as a response to the ‘God Blessed America for Me” song by Kate Smith. He said the song drove him nuts and he simply had to retort.
His response became a very popular song across the country. After a while, it fell into obscurity. However, in the 1960s, it became one of the anthems for social justice in the United States. In 2002, as recognition of its impact, the song was added to the National Recording Registry.
9. Five Hundred Miles – Hedy West
This song is one of the saddest folk songs of all time. It was made popular in the USA and parts of Europe during the folk revival period of the 1960s. It is generally believed to have been written by Hedy West, although some have credited Curly Williams as a co-writer. Regardless of the origins, it is one of the most popular and saddest folks songs ever.
The song tells of a traveler who is on a train taking him further from his home. There is no indication as to why he left home, but he has no money, clothes, and is ashamed to go back home. The mood is generally sad. Hedy West reportedly based the song on the fragments of music that she heard while growing up.
It is one of the most popular folk songs and has been translated into more than ten languages, ranging from Chinese to Assamese.
Over to you
Folk music is a genre that contains different varieties. It tells a story that resonates with a lot of people. While most of these songs were written during the folk revival of the 1960s, their cultural and social significance cannot be denied.
The issues spoken about back then are still relevant in our day. Why don't you head over to the embedded videos and enjoy each of these best folk songs ever written!
Header image credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash