Everyone has a different top 10 list when it comes to folk music songs. But, most would agree that Bob Dylan’s ’Tambourine Man’ is one of the best folk songs ever written.
Tim Hardin’s ’If I Were A Carpenter’ is another timeless folk song that touches on themes of romantic insecurity. And, Cat Stevens’ ’Wild World’ is about loving someone enough to let them go.
1. The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan
One of the best folk songs of all time, this Bob Dylan track speaks for a generation and still holds true to today’s issues. Joan Baez has said that when Dylan wrote the song he didn't expect it to become a civil rights anthem, but it did. You can listen to this iconic track for free on Mp3 Juice.
One of the most famous folk songs is Tim Hardin’s classic tune about insecurity in a relationship, which is covered by many musicians. Similarly, Pete Seeger’s protest of nuclear proliferation, 'Old Man Atom Blues' is another folk classic. The song has been recorded over 645 times.
2. If I Were A Carpenter by Tim Hardin
A lyrical love song that evokes platonic love, this song has resonated with many over the years. Its message and the voice of Tim Hardin make this song a classic folk song.
Often categorized as a protest song, Pete Seeger’s anthem is a commentary on the Vietnam War. It resounds with those that wish to end war and violence around the world.
A traditional song with roots in the Melungeon ethnicity, this is a beautiful tune that speaks to a broader audience than just Appalachian peoples. The version by The Weavers is particularly popular.
3. Wild World by Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens was one of the best-selling folk musicians of his generation. He is known for his introspective and poetic compositions. This song from his album Tea for the Tillerman explores the nature of life and love.
The song is an ode to a lover who has left and the songwriter reflects on how difficult it can be to find true love. It also warns the listener about how fragile life can be and encourages them to enjoy every moment of it. This is a beautiful and timeless track.
4. Operator by Jim Croce
Operator is a classic folk song that showcases the singer’s knack for storytelling. It tells the story of a man who believes that the operator on the payphone can fix his broken relationship by simply connecting him with his ex-partner.
It is a reminder that it is often the fault of miscommunication rather than external factors that lead to broken relationships. Moreover, the song is a reflection of the frustrations of people who cannot get their point across in an effective manner.
5. Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel
There’s a good chance you’ve heard at least one of these folk music songs. Whether it’s a love song or an anti-war song, folk artists are known for creating melancholy picturesque tunes that speak to the soul.
A traditional English ballad, Scarborough Fair tells of unrequited love. A young man asks his lover to complete a series of impossible tasks in order to keep him. This song has over 645 recorded versions and is the #1 most recorded Folk Song. The Simon & Garfunkel version of the song is unique in that it incorporates the melody of Canticle into the lyrics.
6. Sam Stone by John Prine
The list of best folk music songs would not be complete without one of Woody Guthrie’s most famous tunes. His version of This Land is Your Land has been covered by artists from all over the world.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier is a poignant commentary on the effects of war. It was written after Sainte-Marie listened to the stories of wounded soldiers.
Margo Price and Swamp Dogg recorded this classic in separate locations, with Price recording from the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee and Swamp Dogg from his studio in Northridge, California.
7. L.A. Freeway by John Prine
No folk music playlist is complete without this classic song. It’s timeless lyrics speak to a generation restless with social complacency.
Unlike many folk songs of the time, this folk classic isn’t about war but rather about the death of a goose. This tune shows how even the smallest stories can make an impact on generations to come. This track is a testament to the deep-rooted connection between music and culture. It illustrates how music can soothe the savage beast within us. It also proves that music can transcend all borders and bring people together.
8. The Little Drummer Boy by Bob Dylan
If you ever encounter a folk guitarist, this catchy song is likely to be one of the first songs they’ll mention. Originally written by Henry McClintock, the song is about a hobo’s idea of paradise, where hens lay soft-boiled eggs and cigarettes grow on trees.
Dylan was a key figure in the folk revival of the 1960s and his song is famous for its poetic language and unusual imagery. It is also considered an antiwar anthem. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 'Universal Soldier' is an equally moving protest song.
9. The Last Time I Saw Her by Bob Dylan
Dylan’s take on this old folk song (recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Chet Atkins and teen crooners alike) is a harrowing look at lovelorn depletion. It’s one of the best examples of how Dylan was able to place folk music in a pop context.
Huddie Ledbetter penned this in 1933, but The Weavers made it famous and it has never really dated. A simple yet profound meditation on the hardships of life, this is a true folk classic.
10. The Wabash Cannonball by Pete Seeger
The Wabash Cannonball is a song about the power and grandeur of America’s railroad system. It uses imagery of trains “gliding along the woodland, o’er the hills and by the shore” to convey the sense of power and freedom that Americans feel when they see this majestic mode of transport.
Folk music has long been a vehicle for political activism, and many of the best folk songs deal with themes of social justice. One such song is Phil Ochs’ protest anthem I Ain’t Marching Anymore, which has been recorded by countless folk musicians over the years.