What do you think of when you think of American folk music? Perhaps Pete Seeger ballads come to mind. Maybe you are reminded of American classics such as “Yankee Doodle” or the music of Bob Dylan. The variety of these examples alone showcases the diversity of this difficult-to-define category. Yet, when viewed holistically, the one unifying characteristic of American folk is its “for the people” nature. Whether you’re listening to Odetta or the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman or Joni Mitchell, you’ll find that at the core of the guitar chords is a story of everyday experiences amidst a backdrop of major political and social events. Thus, the trajectory of American folk music follows the trajectory of American history.
The ’60s and ’70s were arguably the peak of American folk music; with the Vietnam War and women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements, the folk scene was bursting with passion. Below are some of our favorites that are sure to get you hooked on American Folk!
“Blowin’ In the Wind” by Odetta (1963)
A staple of both folk and blues, Odetta is a must-listen. Given the historic events of the civil rights movement at this time, her strong, trailblazing voice and skillful guitar playing adds new meaning to this powerful song of protest, which was originally released by Bob Dylan.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan (1964)
An anthem for many social movements, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” brilliantly and beautifully encapsulates the feelings associated with the moment in history at which it was released. Frequently covered by old and new artists alike, the sentiment Dylan expresses continues to speak to listeners across generations.
“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas (1965)
California Dreamin' is the epitome of Laurel Canyon, a musical landmark where breakthrough sounds were created within the mountainous hills of Hollywood — where numerous greats of American folk lived. This song will transport listeners right to the canyon while clapping and singing along with The Mamas & the Papas.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds (1965)
With lyrics pulled directly from the Bible, this upbeat and encouraging song takes age-old lessons and merges them with the culture and events of 1965. The recognizable strums of the Rickenbacker guitar and beat of the tambourine, coupled with the group’s impeccable harmonizations, makes this song a staple of American Folk.
“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (1966)
The forthright lyrics and chilling electric guitar chords of “For What It’s Worth” are at the very core of Vietnam War-inspired folk rock. Lines such as “paranoia strikes deep” and “battle lines being drawn” are the musical embodiment of the antiwar sentiment of the ’60s.
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen (1967)
The gentle, hypnotic tune of Suzanne tells the story of Leonard Cohen’s alleged affair with Suzanne Verdall. Though written and popularized by Cohen, Suzanne was debuted by Judy Collins in 1966 and was infamously performed by the pair in 1976, embodying the hallmark sharing of ideas within American folk.
“America” by Simon & Garfunkel (1968)
Simon & Garfunkel are a staple of American folk, and their song “America” arguably defines the genre; themes of strife, hope, and everyday occurrence are alive in this travel story. The song continues to be reinvented and was covered by the contemporary folk duo First Aid Kit.
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell (1969)
A Laurel Canyon giant, Joni Mitchell’s hit song “Both Sides Now” has continued to resonate with fans for decades, given its eternally applicable theme of looking back retrospectively and feeling content with the unknowns of life. Mitchell’s mezzo-soprano voice gives this song a tone of childlike innocence, matching the innocuous lyrics.
“Our House (Demo)” by Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell (1970)
Though only recently released on the 50th anniversary edition of “Deja-Vu,” the 1970 demo of Nash’s “Our House” is arguably more relevant to understanding American folk, given its vocals by Joni Mitchell. Written about the house Mitchell and Nash shared in Laurel Canyon, this song demonstrates the close-knit American folk community of the ’70s.
“Plane Wreck at Los Gatos/Deportee” by Joan Baez (1971)
A lesser-known yet powerful Joan Baez cover of Woody Guthrie, this song introduces the theme of immigration to the genre of American Folk, illuminating the harrowing reality at the Mexican border. The daughter of a Mexican immigrant, Baez’s purposeful use of Spanish lyrics and flamenco-inspired chords evoke sympathy.
“The Wind” by Cat Stevens (1971)
The high-pitched guitar chords coupled with the low, sweet voice of Cat Stevens gives The Wind a light, airy feel, exemplifying the underlying theme of peace within American folk music. This is the first song on Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, which includes his famous hit, “Peace Train.”
“Here Comes the Sun” by Richie Havens (1971)
Havens reimagines the Beatles’ hit song in his unique folk rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” through fast-paced guitar strumming, use of the conga drum, whistling, and humming. Known for awe-inspiring performance at Woodstock, Havens’ soulful voice gives new meaning to these well-known lyrics.
“You And Me On The Rock” by Brandi Carlile (2022)
A remake of her award-winning “In These Silent Days,” Carlile’s album, “In The Canyon Haze,” is inspired by the folk techniques of Laurel Canyon. Notably, this included a softer, acoustic version of her hit song “You And Me On The Rock,” featuring the vocals of her wife Catherine Shepherd. The re-release was motivated by Carlile’s partnership with Joni Mitchell, whose influence is apparent in this tender love song.