A list of the best folk songs of all time can cause some discussion. Some people don't think folk music is really still being produced today. Some say only the music of the 1960s counts as folk music. Others recognize a huge folk family that includes everyone from Leadbelly to Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens to Ani DiFranco.
This best folk songs of all time list is based on a number of lists of the most influential artists and most important songs from the folk genre. Because of the necessity to reign in what would otherwise be a huge list, this list focuses on American folk music of the 20th and 21st centuries.
1. "This Land is Your Land"
Woody Guthrie nearly universally tops everyone's lists of the most important and influential folk singers of all time. "This Land is Your Land" is definitely his most famous tune and clearly one of the best folk songs of all time. Despite beginning with descriptions of America's beauty, in true folk style the song also questions whether the American dream really is for everyone.
Website: "This Land is Your Land"
2. "The Times They Are A'Changing"
Even if you're not a fan of folk music you probably know the work of Bob Dylan. This song is a classic because its message is timeless even though it is associated with the 1960s protest movements. The lyrics portray the feelings young people always have when they're ready to take over the world.
Website: "The Times They Are A'Changing
It would be fair to put just about any Joni Mitchell song on the list of the best folk songs of all time, especially her work on Blue, but this song is iconic because it has been performed by so many people. It reminds us that Woodstock wasn't just about music and drugs.
4. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Pete Seeger was one of the most influential folk singers of the 1950s and 1960s, and he either wrote or covered most of the greatest folk songs out there. His "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is a timeless song about the consequences of war and the way history repeats itself.
Website: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
6. "For the Sake of the Song"
Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt was a master of the country-folk genre. While his songs tend to be more about women and the blues they cause than the desperation of living in a world full of war, they're still songs worth remembering.
Website: "For the Sake of the Song"
7. "I Ain't Marching Anymore"
Known for his protest and topical songs, Phil Ochs wasn't as popular as some of the other folk singers of the 1960s. However, his music has stood the test of time because of its simple lyrics that still ring true, such as this anti-war song.
Website: "I Ain't Marching Anymore"
8. "Down the Road"
Influenced by Townes Van Zandt and known specifically as an alt-country artist rather than a true folk singer, Steve Earle has soothed broken hearts for a generation with his soulful tunes like this one, about how difficult it can be to find love.
Website: "Down the Road"
Commonly classified in the bluegrass genre of folk music, Alison Krause is one of the most popular folk singers releasing new music today. Thanks to heart-rending songs like "Stay," she has established herself as worthy of hanging out with the grand old men of folk.
10. "Not a Pretty Girl"
Another in the new legion of female folk singers (though DiFranco probably wouldn't consider herself folk) is the tough and spirited Ani DiFranco. Her "Not a Pretty Girl" rails against needing to be rescued and the pressure society puts on someone who tries to go against the grain.
Website: "Not a Pretty Girl"