Nine of the Greatest Folk Songs of All Time (Part 2)

In our continuing list of just a small selection the greatest and most captivating songs from this wide old music genre, we’ve got three ‘60s tracks on the setlist – although one of them is about the civil war and sounds like it could have been written in 1860. We promise we’ll be a little more modern in our last section, although it must be said most of the greatest folk tracks of all time are of the older persuasion. So here they are!

Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell

With it’s instantly recognisable refrain of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot’, Big Yellow Taxi is one of the most iconic environmental anthems of all time.

The track was originally written during Mitchell’s first visit to Hawaii. According to the singer herself, she opened her hotel curtains one morning and was mightily impressed with the verdant green mountains before her – only to look down and see a huge grey tarmac car park outside the hotel. She went inside and wrote Big Yellow Taxi within a few hours. Funnily enough, it has since inspired more than few instances around the world of people ripping up parking lots to make new parks. Right on!

Where Have all the Flowers Gone – Pete Seeger

Another highly political song, Where Have all the Flowers was recorded during a charged moment of American history. The song was written by Pete Seeger in 1955 while he was travelling to a gig at Oberlin College in Ohio. That was one of the only venues in the country that would book him after he and his band The Weavers fell afoul of McCarthy era blacklisting.  Using lyrics from a Russian Cossack marching tune, which Seeger had read about in a Russian novel called And Quiet Flows the Don, Seeger paired them with a melody from an old Irish working song he knew – and instantly an iconic anti-war folk song was born.

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger

It soon became one of the most covered and influential folk songs of the late 50s and early 60s. By the end of the decade luminaries such as Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield, Joan Baez, Earth Wind & Fire and Peter, Paul & Mary had all recorded their own versions.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – Joan Baez

First recorded by the fantastically named The Band in 1969, the most iconic version of this song was sung by Joan Baez in 1971 – who took the song into the top five of the charts for several weeks. The track is passionate lament of the horrors of the last years of the Civil War, written from a first-person perspective. The easily singable chorus with its ‘na na na na’ vocal refrain and the oh-so American folksy imagery combine to create a perfectly melancholy yet uplifting track that stays with the listener long after the record stops spinning or the video stops playing.