Folk music is notable for its accessibility. It’s music written for the people. There’s a reason that artists like Pete Seeger put time and effort into persuading their audience to sing along.
But no one sings as well as the artists themselves. Here are some of the most famous folk singers.
1. Woody Guthrie
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, or ‘Woody Guthrie’, was one of the most famous folk artists and composers of the American Folk Revival.
Born in 1912, Guthrie spent his early years in Oklahoma with his four siblings. His father was a former cowboy turned local politician, while his mother turned him onto music.
Guthrie developed a love of traveling during his teenage years and ultimately moved to Texas. When The Great Depression struck the plains states, Guthrie pushed toward the west coast with music on his mind. He played wherever he could and worked odd jobs to fill the gaps.
The Great Depression and subsequent periods of political upheaval inspired many of Guthrie’s songs. His lyrics often carried themes of anti-fascism, humanitarianism, and other liberal ideals. He often collaborated with fellow folk singers, especially Pete Seeger.
2. Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger inspired some formidable musicians and popularized the 12-string banjo. Much of his music contained themes of peace, equality, and environmentalism.
Born in Manhattan in 1919 to a musicologist and concert violinist, Seeger had a strong musical pedigree. His initial dream was journalism, but a job archiving American folk music changed everything. Seeger met several like-minded spirits and hit the road to pursue music.
His political beliefs landed him in hot water more than once over the years, and Seeger was even blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Still, he never stopped singing and ultimately found a second life in the industry with the resurgence of folk music in the 1950s.
He penned some of the most memorable songs from the era, including “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
3. Lead Belly
Huddie William Ledbetter was born in 1888 and performed everything from gospel to folk. His mastery of multiple instruments and fluid transition from one genre to another made Lead Belly a legend. He even sang so well that it got him out of prison twice and led to radio and short film appearances.
His theme song, “Goodnight Irene,” made the playlist at almost every concert. Other notable songs include “Rock Island Line” and “Bring Me Little Water Sylvie.”
Sadly, Lead Belly died in 1949 before the American folk revival took off. However, Lead Belly collected a prolific catalog of American folk songs and passed them on to singers like Guthrie and Seeger.
4. Bob Dylan
Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, is from Duluth, Minnesota and was born in 1941. He picked up his first guitar at the tender age of 14.
During a stint at the University of Minnesota, Dylan tumbled into the Minneapolis bohemian theme and found folk music. The inspired young man changed his last name to Dylan and moved East.
Dylan splashed onto the music circuit in New York City, amassed a series of supporters, and signed with Columbia Records. His style and sound perplexed many critics but struck a chord with young listeners.
Of all the singer-songwriters to contribute to the evolution of American folk music, Dylan’s music has the distinction of featuring some of the most poetic lyrics in the musical canon, including “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Tambourine Man.”
5. Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot is a famous Canadian folk singer who walks the line between folk, rock, and pop. Born in 1938, Lightfoot’s music heavily influenced the industry and earned praise for folk-pop as a genre.
Despite Lightfoot’s importance in shaping folk music across the world, he initially set out to study jazz. To support himself, he wrote advertisement jingles and took inspiration from prominent folk singers like Pete Seeger and The Weavers.
Lightfoot became synonymous with Toronto’s music coffee shops, where he played folk and other genres.
His music eventually reached American audiences and earned various awards, including four Grammy nominations. Some of his most famous songs include “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Rainy Day People.”
6. Phil Ochs
There’s no one quite like Phil Ochs who was a songwriter and protester in equal measure.
Some think him obscure, mostly because he was born in 1940 and died in 1976. Despite just over a decade in the business, Ochs’ unique style left a mark on the genre.
Like his fellow folk musicians, Ochs imbues his music with causes, but there’s a sharpness and bite to Ochs’ satire that is more overt than his peers. Songs like “Outside a Small Circle of Friends” and “Draft Dodger Rag” illustrate the unique approach.
While much of Ochs’ humor came from his passion for his causes, he also battled mental health problems. Sadly, Ochs committed suicide in 1976 after an ongoing struggle with alcoholism and bipolar disorder.
7. Joan Baez
Joan Baez is another American folk musician whose passion for activism was well-suited to the early folk revival. However, as Baez’s career evolved, so did her music, and it now encompasses a variety of genres, including gospel and rock-and-roll.
Baez received her first instrument, a ukulele, as a child. But it was attending a Pete Seeger concert at age 13 that persuaded Baez she had to become a musician.
Despite family concerns about what this life exposed her to, Baez performed for an audience in 1958. She got her big break in the 1960s after recording covers of established folk staples before writing her own songs, including “Diamonds and Rust” and “Farewell, Angelina.”
8. Harry Belafonte
Harold George Belafonte, Jr. was born in 1927 in New York City to a Jamaican mother. Belafonte returned to Jamaica with her and lived there for five years. He served in the Navy and studied drama in New York City.
Belafonte’s career kickstarted in the pop genre, thanks to backing from the bebop saxophone legend Charlie Parker. He ultimately found his place in folk music, which opened the door to Broadway and acting. Famously, Belafonte sang this last as part of an episode of ‘The Muppets.’
His Jamaican roots inspired many songs, including “Day-O!” He also earned several awards for his music, including a National Medal of the Arts and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
9. Tom Paxton
Born in 1937, Thomas Richard Paxton is another famous folk singer with an established career.
He earned a degree in fine arts and, after a stint with the army, took a job as a typing clerk. To keep things interesting, Paxton began writing songs on the typewriter. And while his typing career didn’t stick, music-making did.
Many of Paxton’s songs were published in prominent folk music magazines. Further cementing their part in the folk revival, other singers began performing them.
Some of Paxton’s most popular songs included “The Marvelous Little Toy,” “What Did You Learn in School Today?,” and “Last Thing On My Mind.”
10. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is another famous Canadian folk singer. Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Saskatoon in 1943, she demonstrated an early aptitude for music.
Mitchell’s vocal range gave her astonishing flexibility, and over the years, she played with a range of styles, including pop, jazz, and classical. It was her folk music that took the world by storm.
Mitchell’s early original compositions, especially “Both Sides Now” and “Circle Game,” were often covered by other artists. Songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “A Case of You” regained popularity in recent years thanks to covers by new mainstream bands.
Although Mitchell retired from performing in 2000, she continues to speak passionately about environmentalism and remains involved with the music world.
11. Cat Stevens
Born in 1948, Steven Demetre Georgiou began his musical career by performing in London music clubs He eventually changed his name to Cat Stevens so it would be easier to remember.
Stevens became one of the more prolific songwriters of his time and churned out dozens of winners, including “Peace Train,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Father & Son.”
Despite his immense success, Stevens walked away from his lucrative musical career in the 1970s. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam and focused on humanitarian endeavors.
Yusuf returned to secular music in 2006 with a new release that fans celebrated. He followed up that album with more music, a tour, and even a musical.
12. Judy Collins
Born in 1939, Judith Marjorie Collins got her start in folk music by singing the staples of the time, primarily songs by Seeger, Guthrie, and Dylan.
By the 1970s, she had a reputation for memorable and lyrical folksongs of her own, including “Albatross” and “Farewell to Tarwathie.”
Collins’ career rose, and as it did, so did her activism. She became more outspoken as she gained a musical foothold in the world.
By the 1980s, Collins had branched out to encompass other genres but returned to folk music in the 1990s. Collins still records and most recently produced a book exploring her complicated history with food and disordered eating.
13. Dave Van Ronk
David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk is another influential folk musician with musical flexibility ranging from gospel to swing.
Born in 1936, Van Ronk’s musical career took off when he began playing banjo for various New York jazz groups. From there, it was a short leap to the banjo of the folk revival.
He was one of several musicians to play in Madison Square Gardens to commemorate Phil Ochs. Later, Van Ronk would be arrested for involvement in the Stonewall Riots.
In 2004, Van Ronk posthumously received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Folk Music Association for his dedication to and skill as a folk musician.
14. Harry Chapin
Born in 1942, Harry Chapin began his music career in the 1970s.
His first and immediate hit was ‘Taxi.’ Like many of Chapin’s songs to come, it dealt with the poignancy and often complications of love.
Chapin was a gifted storyteller as well as musician, and his music harkened back to the ‘story song’ tradition of blues while mimicking the stylistic patterns of folk.
Like other famous folk musicians, Chapin had causes he was passionate about, especially world hunger.
His career ended abruptly when he died in a car crash in 1981.
15. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot
Elliott Charles Adnopoz dreamed of being a cowboy, but his parents wanted him to become a surgeon. Naturally, the young rascal did neither.
After a stint of self-taught guitar playing, he joined forces with Woody Guthrie and began seriously studying music.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott followed the traveling musician tradition and crisscrossed the country before heading to Europe. He continued singing folk long after other musicians and listening audiences moved on.
Elliot still tours today with a catalog featuring over 40 albums. He’s also won two Grammys in his epic career.
16. Buffy Saint-Marie
Born in 1941, Buffy Saint-Marie is an Indigenous Canadian-American with a range of talents including singer-songwriter.
She’s an Oscar-winning composer, educator, and social activist focused on supporting Indigenous communities across the Americas.
Saint-Marie’s skill as a pianist and guitarist was initially self-taught. She went on to study music at university, and some of her best-known songs date from this period, including “Ananias” and “Now that Buffalo’s Gone”
Saint-Marie’s songs took many shapes and covered everything from codeine addiction to Indigenous rights. Her style changed as her career matured, but she left an indelible mark on the folk music tradition.
17. Leonard Cohen
It’s not easy to discuss modern music in any genre without mentioning Leonard Cohen. The Canadian singer-songwriter penned some of the most poignant lyrics of all time, including “Hallelujah.”
Cohen was born in Quebec in 1934 and gravitated towards folk music during his teen years. He graduated from McGill University, bought a home, and published several poetry collections that failed to deliver.
Frustrated, Cohen traveled to New York. Surrounded by talent and creativity, Cohen handed off songs to other singers that plunged him into the spotlight.
By the 1970s, Cohen toured, made his way into “Rolling Stone,” and had several relationships. The next several decades saw ups and downs in his life, but Cohen remained a heavy influence up to and beyond his death in 2016.
18. Don McLean
“American Pie” is one of the all-time greatest folk anthems and it comes from the brains and talent of Don McLean. The epic song is more than eight minutes long and one of the most identifiable American anthems.
New Yorker McLean was born in 1945 and spent most of his time surrounded by music. He embarked on the road to a music career at the tender age of 16 and sought connections wherever he could find them.
McLean started performing in clubs and recorded his first album in 1969 in the middle of the Berkeley student riots. He recorded “American Pie” in 1971 and never looked back.
19. Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt merged blues, country, and folk into a symphony of hits that reflected his troubled life.
He was born in Texas and suffered from mental illness and alcoholism that undoubtedly impacted his music and performances.
Thanks to his erratic behavior and tendency to disappoint audiences, Van Zandt didn’t make as much of an impact as a singer as he did for his powerful lyrics.
Following his death at age 52, Van Zandt’s labels released additional albums, including recordings of live performances.
Heading into the modern era, it’s not hard to appreciate Jewel as a leading folk singer.
The Utah native was born in 1974 but relocated to Alaska with her family as a child. She attended an arts academy in Alaska and learned the finer points of performing.
Jewel performed in a coffeehouse in San Diego, California where she was discovered and ultimately signed by Atlantic Records. Her soulful, folksy style included yodeling but managed to appeal to pop-crazy listeners.
Like other folk artists, Jewel has several causes that she champions, including mental health.
21. Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco is a staple in modern folk music. Her sound blends the best of punk, funk, jazz, rock, and more recently, hip hop with the soulful world of folk.
DiFranco famously forged her own path from her early days and devoted time to various causes. She’s a staunch advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, and regularly performs at benefits.
This vocal, award-winning songwriter and performer is known for several folk albums, including “Educated Guess” and “Fellow Workers.”
22. Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch is another popular, contemporary folk artist who frequently performs with her partner, Dave Rawlings.
Welch, born in New York City in 1967, is one of the more prolific contemporary folk writers. She has an impressive catalog that incorporates folk, country, bluegrass, and Americana sounds into a unique style.
Her musical debut, Revival, received accolades including a Grammy nomination. Welch’s talents rounded out the soundtrack for the Coen brothers on their film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
23. Janis Ian
Janis Ian was born Janis Eddy Fink in 1951 and found success as a teenage musician. She had a series of hits from the mid-1960s through the 1970s.
Ian’s first hit, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)” highlighted a forbidden interracial romance. Despite the popularity, Ian received hate mail and death threats over the song.
She pushed the envelope with several subsequent songs that highlighted social issues. Her success fell off during the 1980s, but she kept writing songs. Ian continues to write and perform, including a recent release in response to hot-button American social issues.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Folk Singers
The music industry today has been shaped by these great folk singers throughout the years.
From all backgrounds and nationalities, these singers have found common ground in their love of music and the impact they’ve had on people worldwide.
But, this list barely scratches the surface of amazing folk artists. Who did we miss off that you think should be included? Let us know and we’ll add it in!