100 Essential Folk Songs

The year we have just entered, 2023, is Folk Alley’s 20th Anniversary and to celebrate we have a number of things up our sleeves to mark the occasion. We’ll be telling you more as the year unfolds.

To kick things off, we decided to convene a group of artists, DJs, critics, and various other people within the music industry to come up with a new list of “100 Essential Folk Songs.”

“Essential” does not mean these songs are the objective “best.” It simply means that they are songs our panel of contributors believed folk music fans should get to know.

We asked contributors: “If you were to make a mix tape for a dear friend, to introduce them to folk music, what songs would you include?” The result landed us with a list of more than 200 songs.

A few artists—Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Buffy Ste.-Marie—had several songs mentioned, so we narrowed it down to one song per artist. (No small feat.)

It was important to us that the final list of 100 essentials include songs by artists from beyond North America. We wanted to make sure that every notable era in American folk music was represented—including the present. We wanted to make sure that the folk artists on this list represented marginalized communities and included influential artists from numerous ethnic groups.

We recognize that folk music is inherently diverse, so we wanted to land on a list of essentials that represented the broad array of artists and styles that have been defining and influencing the genre from the start.

Our contributors included several artists: Adeem the Artist, Amy Ray, Edie Carey, Eliza Gilkyson, Jaimee Harris, Jake Blount, Lizzie No, and Steve Forbert. We also included people from various areas of the folk music industry: Cindy Howes, Henry Carrigan, and Kim Ruehl from Folk Alley; Hilary Saunders and Stacy Chandler from No Depression; Devon Leger of Hearth Music; and Ashley Shabankareh from Folk Alliance International.

Selections from this list will be available for your streaming pleasure on the Classic Folk stream on folkalley.com, the Folk Alley mobile app, and your smart speaker (“Alexa, ask Folk Alley to play classic folk music.”)

And here they are, in alphabetical order:

1. “$20 Bill (for George Floyd)” by Tom Parasada-Rao
2. “32 Flavors” by Ani DiFranco
3. “500 Miles” by The Journeymen
4. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
5. “Ain’t No Grave” by Charlie Parr
6. “All the Pretty Horses” by Suzy Bogguss
7. “Angel from Montgomery” by Bonnie Raitt
8. “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian
9. “Best of Friends” by Mimi Fariña
10. “Black Myself” by Amythyst Kiah

11. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
12. “Bonaparte’s Retreat” by William Hamilton Stepp
13. “Borrachito Borrachon” by Los Shapis
14. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” by The Carter Family
15. “Carinito” by Los Hijos del Sol
16. “Circle Game” by Tom Rush
17. “City of Immigrants” by Steve Earle
18. “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls
19. “Clouds (Both Sides Now)” by Joni Mitchell
20. “Coumba” by Orchestra Baobab

21. “Dead Skunk” by Loudon Wainwright III
22. “Delbar” by Sima Bina
23. “Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez
24. “Didn’t It Rain” by Jake Blount
25. “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock
26. “Everything Is Free” by Gillian Welch
27. “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
28. “Ford Econoline” by Nanci Griffith
29. “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia
30. “Freedom” by Richie Havens

31. “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten
32. “Goodnight Irene” by Lead Belly
33. “Green Fields” by Terry Gilkyson
34. “Harlem River Blues” by Justin Townes Earle
35. “Hasta la Raiz” by Natalia Lafourcade
36. “Have Another Pill” by Sunny War
37. “Heartbeats Accelerating” by Kate & Anna McGarrigle
38. “Hello in There” by John Prine
39. “Home” by Karla Bonoff
40. “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton

41. “House of the Rising Sun” by Doc Watson
42. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs
43. “I Hate the Capitalist System” by Barbara Dane
44. “I’m from New Jersey” by John Gorka
45. “If I Had a Hammer” by Peter Paul and Mary
46. “John Henry” by Bessie Jones
47. “Jug Band Music” by Jim Kweskin Jug Band
48. “Just a Wave, Not the Water” by Butch Hancock
49. “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” by Rev. Gary Davis
50. “Kumbaya” by H. Wylie

51. “La Bamba Rebelde” by Las Cafeteras
52. “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds
53. “Lonely Are the Brave” by Kieran Kane & Rayna Gellert
54. “Lopin’ Along through the Cosmos” by Judee Sill
55. “Love Comes Back” by Rose Cousins
56. “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” by Taj Mahal
57. “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” by Mississippi John Hurt
58. “Mercy Now” by Mary Gauthier
59. “Middle of a Heart” by Adeem the Artist
60. “Mohabbat” by Arooj Aftab

61. “One of These Days” by Bedouine
62. “Pajaro Cenzontle” by Son Pompe Pera
63. “Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt
64. “Polly Ann’s Hammer” by Our Native Daughters
65. “Residential School” by Chris Pierce
66. “Run Indian Run” by Buddy Red Bow
67. “Sing Me Back Home” by Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard
68. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Eliza Gilkyson
69. “Snake Farm” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
70. “Solidarity Forever” by Utah Phillips

71. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by Odetta
72. “Songbird” by Jesse Winchester
73. “Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
74. “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen
75. “Tailor” by Anais Mitchell
76. “The Body Electric” by Hurray for the Riff Raff
77. “The Christians and the Pagans” by Dar Williams
78. “The Oil Song” by Steve Forbert
79. “The Problem” by Amanda Shires & Jason Isbell
80. “The Way I Talk” by S.G. Goodman

81. “There Is No Mail Today” by Samantha Crain
82. “There Is Power in a Union” by Billy Bragg
83. “These Days” by Jackson Browne
84. “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
85. “This Train” by Big Bill Broonzy
86. “Til I Can Gain Control Again” by Emmylou Harris
87. “Time Has Told Me” by Nick Drake
88. “Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
89. “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
90. “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

91. “Up Jumped the Devil” by Robert Johnson
92. “We Shall Overcome” by The Staple Singers
93. “When the Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie
94. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Fairport Convention
95. “Workin’ Woman Blues” by Valerie June
96. “World So Full” by Jon Dee Graham
97. “Worn Out American Dream” by Jimmy LaFave
98. “You’re Not Alone” by Allison Russell
99. “You’ve Got to Go Down and Join the Union” by The Almanac Singers
100. “Your Heart’s a Big Tent” by Willi Carlisle

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