January 12, 2019
Folk music is one of the oldest popular music genres of today, with its origins going way back before rock & roll changed the landscape of contemporary music in the 50s. This means folk music fans, critics and aficionados have over a hundred years of musical history to draw on when selecting the best tracks of the genre. That will make any definitive list controversial, let alone one spread over just 1500-ish words and nine tracks.
However, we did our best to pick the most iconic, best-selling and well-known folk music tracks for this list – offering a great starting point for those who don’t know their John Denver from their John Gorka. As usual, don’t be afraid to let us know if you think we made a big omission. Although, you may want to wait until we’ve published the whole list in case your favourite does pop up.
This Land is Your Land – Woody Guthrie
Although much of the melody was copied from an earlier folk tune called When the World’s on Fire by The Carter Family, Guthrie’s 1944 classic is one of the most iconic folk songs in American history. Strangely, as a vehement anti-fascist and somewhat socialist figure, this song has recently been adopted by many right-wing patriots in America.
In fact, the 1944 original version has a verse that seems to hold the idea of private property with some distain:
“There was a high wall there that tried
to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.”
Nevertheless, it remains a powerful and long-lived statement about the rights of folk populations in a modernising world – that’s also a kick-ass tune too.
Mr Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
A (slightly) more modern single, Dylan may have been much maligned by some in the folk community after ‘going electric’ around this time period, but this is still one of his bestselling and most popular songs. The album Mr Tambourine Man appeared on, Bringing it All Back Home, marked Dylan’s transition to a more surreal and musical style that brought in more contemporary 1960s influences – as opposed to the pure folksy protest songs of his earlier material. Inspired by surrealist poetry and, most probably, lots of marijuana use, Mr Tambourine Man was part of a profound musical shift that cemented Dylan as one of the world’s most gifted lyricists and creative musicians.
A stone-cold folk classic then.
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen
This ‘secular hymn’ is one of the most covered songs of all time, with a documented 300 versions released since the song’s 1984 debut. Although not hugely successful at the time, Hallelujah has had a several popular revivals in the 30-odd years since its release. Most notably after Cohen’s sad passing in 2016, when it reached the Billboard 500 for the first time, and after the song’s use in the 2001 animated movie Shrek.