Nothing gets people to listen to a strongly political message quite like a delicately worded song played on a quiet, wistful guitar. On it’s surface, folk music might seem like the most milquetoast of genres but at its core there is a confrontational pathos and an eminent accessibility that cannot be denied.
Here are five tracks that display that capacity to full effect.
5. Big Yellow Taxi (1970) by Joni Mitchell
I am more interested in what you have done, rather than actual results for this first few hours – ie I am not expecting massive results – I want to know your processes etc. more than results.
As the folk movement coalesced it may have gotten less baldly political but its outlook never stopped being equal parts criticism and positivity.
Joni Mitchell captures perfectly this balance in her song “Big Yellow Taxi” a slow burn hit that matches Mitchell’s broad outlook with a personal tale of domestic struggle. And that capacity to make the universal personal is what makes Mitchell a great folk artist.
4. If I Had a Hammer (1962) by Peter, Paul, and Mary
This cover of folk king Pete Seeger’s love letter to the people was originally written and released in 1949. But its support of the progressive movement and Seeger’s friendliness with the Communist cause didn’t win it any fans.
The song was able to reach a wider popular audience when it was packaged in the gorgeous harmonies of the less divisive but just as opinionated folk staples Peter, Paul and Mary. They took the song all the way to the capital during the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech.
3. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright (1963) by Bob Dylan
Really an entire list of the best folk songs could be made up of Dylan’s creative output. But this song outdoes a lot of them when it comes to sheer impact and artistry. Dylan’s songs have been heard and loved in a variety of styles, though his unique voice and committed delivery mean that his remain the quintessential version.
Dylan’s love song is not a political statement in the way that many of the other songs on this list are. But his reflective take on an impossible situation captures not just the hope and aspirations of the folk movement but the simple fact of what it was to live back then as well.
2. This Land is Your Land (1945) by Woody Guthrie
Forerunner to the later popularization of folk music, Guthrie’s populist anthem worked in the vein of thought and style that would later sweep the music scene. Initially imagined as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, the simple, sweet tone of the song cleverly hides its somewhat cynical, restless motivation.
1. We Shall Overcome by Pete Seeger
The communalist nature of the folk movement makes it hard to directly attribute many songs to any one performer. Songs were frequently given new live when they were popularized by one individual’s fresh take. Such was the case with Pete Seeger’s version of “We Shall Overcome” which really had been making its way around folk circles since 1947 when it was published in the People’s Song Bulletin.
From there the song made its way to the mainstream to become a staple of the Civil Rights Movement including mentions in Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon before his assassination. Since then the song has become a symbol of protest and hope in the face of struggle in civil rights struggles throughout the world. And it’s easy to see why. “We Shall Overcome” is the kind of straightforward but still impactful song that makes it hard to not sing along.
Follow the folk example. Share the list and add to it. Tell us what folk songs you move you in the comments.