“It’s the end of the summer, when you send your children to the moon.” Or so sang Dar Williams on her classic tune, “End of the Summer” (from the album of the same name, 1997)—one of the best back-to-school songs in recent memory.
In the spirit of that song, we thought it would be fun to compile a collection of “Back to School” music for folks who are heading off to college, specifically.
So much great music is shared and discovered in dorm rooms and across college campuses, as coeds begin to mingle in their new microcosm, from far-flung places, with their personal record collections and curated playlists.
To honor them, we reached back into our own college years to pull out a bunch of beloved albums that Folk Alley staff discovered—or simply became newly obsessed with—when we were in college. Whether you’re heading off to college this fall, or you just want to detour into some nostalgia, here are some of Folk Alley’s picks, presented here in alphabetical order.
Alan Lomax – Popular Songbook
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was the entryway to folk music for the Baby Boomer generation. But in the early ‘00s, the biggest boon was the release of Alan Lomax’s Popular Songbook. It presented recordings of giants like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie alongside lesser-known masters like Georgia Turner and Vera Ward Hall.
Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips – The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere
This first collaboration between DiFranco and Phillips was a remarkable collection of the elder’s songs, stories, poems, and miscellaneous stage banter, set to DiFranco’s musical accompaniment. It introduced a new generation to the incredible career of one of folk music’s greatest working-class heroes and married the old guard with the new in ways that rocked our college brains.
David Bromberg – Demon in Disguise
If singer-songwriter music is your bag, there are few better than David Bromberg. This classic 1972 album from the master includes his collaborations with several members of the Grateful Dead. More than half the tracks were recorded live, to boot.
Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)
Certainly, there are plenty of great albums from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and you would be well-served with absolutely any of them. But this classic from 2001 is basically perfect, from start to finish. DJ Cindy Howes and this writer agree on that opinion and are willing to call it fact, for our purposes on this list.
Gil Scott Heron – Pieces of a Man
Gil Scott Heron was widely considered one of the great poet-musicians of his generation, and “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” is one of the finest protest poems of modern history. It was featured here on his most resonant album, released in 1971.
Joni Mitchell – Blue
When Joni Mitchell took the stage at Newport Folk Festival this summer, it reignited our adoration for her extraordinary catalog. A few FA staff landed upon her masterpiece, Blue, during college. It’s an exquisite tour of the nuanced complexity inherent in young love. And, it turns out, its truths are timeless.
Kate Wolf – Close to You
As the Kate Wolf Music Festival closes up shop this summer and folks on social media seem to have been rediscovering her music, now is as good a time as any to discover her remarkable canon. This release from 1981 is often a favorite, and includes one of her most beloved songs, “Across the Great Divide.”
REM – Life’s Rich Pageant
REM wasn’t exactly a folk band, but they were certainly at the forefront of a new wave of folk-rock in the 1980s. Their 1986 recording, Life’s Rich Pageant, is a wonderful entry point for folks just discovering their work. It was a quintessential mainstay on college radio at the time.
Shawn Colvin – Steady On
Shawn Colvin’s breakthrough, A Few Small Repairs (1994), dropped right around this writer’s freshman year, but Steady On (1989) was the album many fans found their way to after falling in love with the former. If you can ignore the 1980s production value, the songwriting was a real gift—perfect narration for navigating all the newness of college social life.
Townes Van Zandt – No Deeper Blue
The late Texas songwriter was one of the finest of his generation. His songs have been covered by many of his peers. His most famous song, “Pancho and Lefty” (from The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, 1972) is perhaps the avenue many folks have traveled into his catalog. But this 1994 release landed just before this writer graduated high school. It was there waiting with classics like “Blaze’s Blues,” when the time was right for new music discovery.