Neil Young performing in Amsterdam in 2019

Neil Young performing in Amsterdam in 2019 (Photo by Ben Houdijk on Shutterstock)

For years folk musicians have been gifting the world with their beautiful poetry and melodies, charming us for generations. Their mellow acoustic sounds have given us comfort and relation in times when we needed connection the most. With so many genres of music in the world, it’s easy to get lost among the millions of voices which is why we are here to talk about the best folk singers of all time.

For almost a Century, musicians have been contributing to the folk music genre, which derives from the word “folklore”. This term was actually coined in the late 1800s to describe the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes, later evolving into defining folk music as the “music of the people.” With folk music being famous for its poetic themes of struggle and hurt, describing it as the “music of the people” seems to be the most fitting definition for the genre. 

Often music does a great job of saying what simple words struggle to convey; a recent study at the University of California, Berkeley has actually studied the effect of music, yes even folk music, on people’s emotions, and the result was that what we feel when listening to a song can fit into at least 13 key emotions. Some noted feelings were joy, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, and scariness. Being able to evoke emotion like that not only means these musicians are doing something right, but it also shows the importance of art, specifically music, to our brains. 

With that being sad, perhaps tuning into your favorite folk hits will have the same effect. As always, we have scanned across numerous sources to bring you the top five best folk singers of all time. Did we miss one of your top picks? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Microphone
Microphone (Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash)

The List: Best Folk Singers, According to Music Experts

1. Bob Dylan

“If one is interested in getting an inside look at social unrest throughout America‘s history, look no further than Bob Dylan. One of music’s greatest storytellers, Dylan has had an incredible influence on songwriting thanks to his bravery and candidness. Ranging from issues such as prejudice, racism, and violence. As one of the most recognizable artists to come out of folk music, Dylan gave the genre some much-needed fire, proving how vital and powerful folk music could really be. Still releasing songs to this day, Dylan is undoubtedly one of music’s greatest artists of all time,” says Nad Electronics.

Hello Music Theory goes on to add that “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.'” Dylan also had a long, illustrious career writing songs for other artists within the folk genre as well as dabble in rock, blues, jazz and more. 

“Often regarded as one of the most acclaimed songwriters of all time, Bob Dylan is also one of the most popular. Touching on multiple genres, Mr. Dylan doesn’t shy away from either taboo or borderline-dangerous topics. Six decades and counting, Dylan never ceased to push the boundaries and expand the imagination of popular music. It comes as no surprise that in 2016 Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the creation of new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” writes GuitarGuitar.

2. Peter Seeger

“Pete Seeger, a member of the iconic folk group The Weavers, is known for his political activism and his ability to connect with audiences through his music. Seeger was an American folk singer and social activist and was one of the folk singers responsible for popularizing the spiritual ‘We Shall Overcome’,” notes Siachen Studios.

“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,” adds Hello Music Theory

“Pete Seeger is right up there with Bob Dylan for inspirational folk musicians, and for a good reason. He has written some of the all-time classics, and he led so many other musicians into the industry and was a source of inspiration,” reports MusicGrotto. With a career that lasted 75 years, it’s no wonder almost eight decades later, people still hold him in high regard among folk musicians. 

3. Joni Mitchell

“Ten Grammy Awards should be enough to give you an idea of how big an impact Joni Mitchell’s songwriting had on the musical landscape of our times. Then again, we must also mention Joni was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 197. Mitchell’s poetic imagery mesmerized generations. Certainly one of the top folk artists, but could she be the most influential female recording artist of the 20th Century? We’ll leave it to you to decide,” says GuitarGuitar.

“Revered for her poetic imagery and her lovely, soaring soprano. Although she really wanted to be a painter, Joni Mitchell managed to pen some of the most memorable folk songs of the past 40 years, including the preservationist tune ‘Big Yellow Taxi,'” raves LiveAbout. It’s also worth noting that this very year after starting her career in the ’60s, she was named one of Rolling Stone’s best singers of all time. 

“Joni Mitchell is undeniably up there among the greatest singer-songwriters of all time regardless of genre but even more so in the folk-rock movement. Anyone who disagrees needs only to listen to her 1971 album ‘Blue’. From her complex compositions to her raw and emotional vocal performances, she is the real deal. She weaves magic with her words and chords – even after all these years, we still know the lyrics to her songs by heart,” adds ILoveClassicRock.

4. Woody Guthrie

Remember all those school assemblies where you all had to sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land”? Well, you can thank this man. “Woody Guthrie is viewed as one of the twentieth Century’s most compelling folk singers. He is best associated with being the artist lyricist behind cuts, for example, ‘I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.’ Guthrie’s music is credited with affecting works by the resulting ages of vocalists and musicians,” reports Discover Walks.

“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. His most significant work is considered to be ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ released in 1945, which speaks clearly of the love Guthrie has for his homeland,” writes Hello Music Theory.

Guitar Guitar adds that “his legacy lives on, with ‘This Land Is Your Land‘ achieving anthemic status and respectively being recorded in dozens of versions in various countries. It is worth mentioning that Guthrie was involved in The Almanac Singers – the first folk supergroup active in the early 40s – alongside other famous folk artists such as Pete Seeger or Lee Hays.”

5. Neil Young

“Neil Young needs no introduction. The man pours so much soul into his songs, and he captures the emotion in all his compositions. The words to his tracks are pure poetry. He is a clear genius. When you read them, they sound simple enough, but looking closer, the meaning is actually pretty deep. The thing is, you can listen to him for the nth time, and it will still feel as hypnotic and mystical as the first. He is the epitome of folk rock. Whether he’s in a superstar lineup or as a solo artist, he always brings something new to the table,” writes ILoveClassicRock.

“Neil is the best singer-songwriter after Dylan. In addition to folk/folk rock, he dabbled in many genres and styles. Apart from this, Neil and his band Crazy Horse rocked very hard without losing control, and sometimes they could also be tender and soft. With such a pedigree including CSNY, he must be the most versatile artist ever,” raves Return of Rock.

Having an “unmistakable voice and touching lyrics that have enchanted fans for generations, Neil Young has explored many musical styles, such as rock, country, and folk. His deep and socially conscious songwriting has made an impact on music lovers globally. From notable hits like ‘Heart of Gold’ to thought-provoking tunes such as ‘Ohio,’ Young’s music is unforgettable in the folk music world,” says SingersRoom. With a career still thriving six decades later, Neil Young’s effect on not just folk music but every genre he took a chance on is recognized among fans. 

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Jilly Hite

Janelle is a freelance writer from New York. Her writing focuses on parenting, tech, business, interior design, education, and telling people’s inspiring stories. Janelle has written for Mustela and Newton Baby and has bylines in Pregnant Chicken, Syracuse Woman Magazine, the Baldwinsville Messenger, and Family Times Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in literacy from the State University of New York at Oswego.

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9 Comments

  1. Jeff PF says:

    Sorry, but Neil AIN”T a “folk singer” by any measure, thoroughly R&R though could be fit into the singer-songwriter genre alright as you mentioned. But that ain’t folk & I’m not taking the purist’s soapbox by saying that, just a fact.

    Potential alternatives for #5 position:
    Fred Neil (my vote), incredibly influential in the earlier Folk wave (late 50s – early 60s) & than later singer-songwriter movement; Dylan’s first onstage in NYC was backing up Fred.

    Joan Baez, the first to break folk out of its downtown cult to become mass appeal. The primary “girl singer” from the late 1950’s until just a couple of years ago.

    Dave Van Ronk, another early influencer who credibly brought blues & jazz into the then typical Elizabethan folk program. Dylan stole his rendition of “… Rising Sun” while living on his couch & recorded it before Dave. A memorable performer.

    Heck, Paul Simon deserves to be among the Top 5 if you are including those whose output isn’t primarily “folk music” before Neil Young. And if we look beyond America First bias what about the incredible Brit Richard Thompson who is still performing at the top of his game?

  2. Michael Shores says:

    Your expanded list could include:

    Gordon Lightfoot
    Joan Baez
    Judy Collins
    Dave Carter
    Kate Wolf
    Phil Ochs
    Claudia Schmidt
    Sally Rodgers
    Stan Rodgers
    Harry Belafonte

  3. Barbara Tillman says:

    You left out Gordon Lightfoot which to me is absurd. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are both Canadian so to leave out GL why make a list at all??

    1. JMc says:

      If Canadians are in Leonard Cohen has to be included.

  4. Edward T. Marsh says:

    What the HECK has happened to the GENIUS, TIM BUCKLEY? Simply asking the question should open the factoid “flood gates” immediately!!!
    I agree: NEIL is not a folk singer in this context. Period…. Take yer blues/rock throne position & be hsppy with the acclaim.!

  5. Leslie Tenney says:

    Woody Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, not Brooklyn.

  6. Peter Wallace says:

    Fine list; my personal preference substitutes Gordon Lightfoot for Pete Seeger

  7. Mark S. says:

    When you think and talk about folk music, you are remiss in not including James Taylor!

  8. Susan says:

    I am no expert but I feel you mixed real folk singers with original songwriters. Maybe you should make two categories, classic folk and R&B.
    A folksinger sings predominately folk songs made and passed down for generations OR writes and sings their songs about folk and folk issues.
    Some Classics: Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, Ramblin Jack Elliot, and on and on, so many great Blues, Leadbelly, and Country folk singers Dolly Partin.
    Great moderns: Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Siebel, Townes Van Zandt, Gordon Lightfoot, Emmy Lou Harris, John Prine, more…