50 Best Folk Music Artists of All Time

Who Are the Best Folk Singers, Groups and Bands?

Here's a look at the best singer/songwriters, artists, and bands in the history of American folk music. Here are the top 50 folk artists of all time, in alphabetical order.

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© Prism

The Almanacs were really the first folk music supergroup and spun off into rather successful careers for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Josh White, Burl Ives, and various other folks who made up the core of the group or who joined them on occasion. Seeger and Hays went on to form The Weavers (included later in this list).

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Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco. © Mark Dellas

Ani DiFranco is probably the most prominent Gen-X folksinger. Since the release of her self-titled debut in 1990, DiFranco has built an excessively loyal fanbase around the world, as well as a rather successful independent record label out of her hometown in Buffalo, NY. She averaged about an album a year of her own work and has managed to also slide in several collaborations and benefit albums, not to mention an endlessly rigorous tour schedule.

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Ben Harper

Ben Harper
Ben Harper. photo: Scott Gries / Getty Images

It's still remarkable that Ben Harper hasn't blown up any bigger than he is. He's managed to maintain a sort of cult following, bringing his soulful folk stylings to rather biting protest songs and incantations about justice and the human experience. Through his haunting, intuitive songwriting skills, Harper has certainly earned his place among the best folk artists of all time.

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Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan. photo: Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

What list of folk music greats would be complete without a nod to Mr. Bob Dylan? He almost doesn't warrant an explanation as to how and why he deserves to be on this list, but I'll give one, anyway. Dylan's songwriting has spanned every nook and cranny of Americana, from the blues to folk to rock and roll, and his influence has been felt through every strain of American music. From his early 60s topical tunes to his heartbreak songs of today, Dylan is easily one of the greatest American folk artists.

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The Carter Family

The Carter Family - In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain
The Carter Family. © Bear Family

It's hard to imagine that we'd still be talking about American folk music had there never been a Carter Family. The music of the Carter Family helped inspire folks like Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" melody was taken from an old Carter Family tune. Johnny Cash grew up listening to them on the radio. It almost seems like every folk artist of note came up listening to the Carter Family and learning their songs. One part old school country, one part gospel spirituals, the Carter Family's influence on contemporary folk music is certainly felt.

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Cat Stevens CD Cover
Cat Stevens CD Cover. © A&M

Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam) was one of the most influential folk singer/songwriters of the 1970s. His peace-focused tunes melded aspects of classic pop with contemporary folk music, distinguishing him from his contemporaries. His song "Wild World" has frequently been covered by artists of various genres.

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Charlie Poole CD Cover
Charlie Poole CD Cover. © Columbia Records

Old time banjo player Charlie Poole was one of the earliest stars of the old time scene back in the 1920s. As the frontman of the North Carolina Ramblers, Poole became an influence on the founding fathers of American bluegrass. Their tune "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" became a country-folk standard in the late '20s.

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Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

Tracy Grammer Live in Seattle
Tracy Grammer Live in Seattle. © Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com

Dave Carter was inarguably one of the best songwriters the contemporary folk scene as known in some time. In his collaboration with Portland fiddle player Tracy Grammer, the duo managed to sing and play their way into the hearts of folk fans, even in the short time before Carter's death in 2002. Their debut album was recorded in their kitchen and went on to become a favorite among folk enthusiasts nationwide.

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Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk CD Cover
Dave Van Ronk CD Cover. © Rootstock Recordings

Dave Van Ronk was one of the most important figures in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene of the 1960s. He was an activist and a songwriter, a Merchant Marine, and a former member of a barbershop quartet. But, it was his involvement in the scene that put him on the map. Literally. There's a street in the West Village of New York named after him.

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Doc Watson

Doc Watson
Doc Watson. © Otto Bost

Aside from being a master flat-picker, Doc Watson has helped inspire a number of other influential folk artists, including Bob Dylan. He's easily one of the most influential artists in the genre, and one of the most gifted instrumentalists.

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Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris Live in Concert
Emmylou Harris Live in Concert. photo: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Emmylou Harris is often considered a country singer, but her roots really lie in contemporary folk. Certainly, her early records were very folky. Emmylou has long been an advocate of social justice and has counted Joan Baez and Bob Dylan among her many influences. She's managed to influence an enormous crop of folksingers, including Gillian Welch and Janis Ian.

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Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch. © Glenn Rose

Gillian Welch is definitely one of the most respected songwriters on the scene these days. Her songs have been used in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and her frequent collaboration with David Rawlings is one of the most appreciated musical partnerships these days.

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The Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead CD Cover
Grateful Dead Live CD. © Rhino Records

Though their roots began in the San Francisco Bay area bluegrass scene, the Grateful Dead soon became one of the most prolific, popular, successful folk-rock bands. Their manner of incorporating bluegrass and jazz-like solo jams has inspired countless jam bands since their inception.

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Greg Brown

Greg Brown
Greg Brown. © Larry McGahey

With his simple, folksy imagery and tunes inspired by his Midwest hometown, Greg Brown has become one of the most inimitable songwriters around these days. His own Red House Records has produced a number of successful artists like Eliza Gilkyson and others.

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Guy Clark

Guy Clark
Guy Clark. courtesy Planet Bluegrass

A contemporary and close friend of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark is best known and appreciated for his deeply narrative story-songs.

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Holly Near

Holly Near
Holly Near. © Pat Hunt

Holly Near's staunch activism and feminist political protest songs have earned her a place among the greatest American folk singers of all time.

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Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte. photo: Peter Kramer / Getty Images

First discovered as a calypso artist, Harry Belafonte became most popular for his "Banana Boat Song." He also became an active force in the Civil Rights movement of the '60s.

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Ian & Sylvia

Ian & Sylvia Album Cover
Ian & Sylvia Album Cover. © Vanguard

Ian & Sylvia were one of the most successful folk duos of the 1960s and '70s. They worked with fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, and also recorded several original and traditional folk songs.

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James Taylor Album Cover
James Taylor Album Cover. © Warner Bros.

James Taylor is often considered one of the most successful of the "sensitive singer/songwriters." Although he's not a traditionalist folk singer, his music blends the tenets of folk with a more mainstream folk-pop style.

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Janis Ian
Janis Ian. © Beth Gwinn

Janis Ian was a different kind of teen queen, hitting the national scene at the age of 15 with a self-penned tune about an inter-racial relationship. She hasn't stopped pushing the envelope since and is still releasing excellent records.

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Joan Baez

Joan Baez
Joan Baez. © Dana Tynan

Joan Baez is one of the most remarkable forces in American folk music. Her voice is an extraordinary soprano, and she's played everything from classic traditional songs to the work of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. She's also been a constant voice for peace and social justice.

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John Gorka CD Cover
John Gorka CD Cover. © Red House Records

John Gorka's literary, poetic folk songs are among some of the most well-written around these days. He's drawn praise from fellow singer/songwriters and critics alike and has become a fixture at festivals nationwide since winning the Kerrville New Folk competition in 1984.

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John Prine

John Prine
John Prine. © John Chiasson

John Prine is often hailed as one of the best narrative songwriters of his generation and has been compared to fellow great songwriters Paul Simon, Loudon Wainwright, and James Taylor. He's a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash CD Cover
Johnny Cash CD Cover. © Sony

Johnny Cash is another one of those artists who's often looked at as a country singer, although his earliest influences were folk artists like the Carter Family. He was a great fan of traditional music, and often performed traditional spiritual songs and the like in his performances with wife June Carter.

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Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell Live in Concert
Joni Mitchell. © Steve Dulson

Joni Mitchell is revered for her poetic imagery and her lovely, soaring soprano. Although she really wanted to be a painter, Mitchell managed to pen some of the most memorable folk songs of the past 40 years, including the preservationist tune "Big Yellow Taxi."

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Judy Collins
Judy Collins. © Wildflower

Judy Collins was one of the artists instrumental in the peace movement of the 1960s. She was one of the most popular female folk singers in the '60s folk revival and started her own record company, Wildflower Records.

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The Kingston Trio

Essential Kingston Trio
Essential Kingston Trio. © Shout Factory

The Kingston Trio was one of the most successful folk groups of its kind, inspiring various other trios to dress alike and tell jokes between their renditions of traditional folk songs. They've released more than 40 albums in the last 50 years, and have become somewhat of an institution in contemporary folk music.

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Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson. courtesy Planet Bluegrass

Kris Kristofferson may be best known for writing Janis Joplin's huge hit "Me and Bobbie McGhee," but he's a favorite among fellow songwriters. He's also quite the accomplished actor, having appeared in several films, including A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand.

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Leadbelly Album Cover
Leadbelly Album Cover. © Fruit Tree Records

You can't really argue with a folksinger so good that his song managed to get him out of jail for murder. Leadbelly's influence has been felt across the musical spectrum, and his tunes spanned the old folk-blues and contemporary folk music.

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Leonard Cohen Album Cover
Leonard Cohen. © Legacy

Leonard Cohen is one of the most distinguished songwriters in contemporary folk music. Originally from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he spent five years living at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles. His dark, spiritual love songs have been frequently covered by artists of all sorts.

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The Mamas and the Papas

The Mamas and the Papas
The Mamas and the Papas. © MCA

The Mamas and the Papas were one of the most successful folk-pop groups of the '60s, and Mama Cass was one of the most notable female presences of the folk revival.

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Michael Franti & Spearhead Album Cover
Michael Franti & Spearhead Album Cover. © Imusic

Michael Franti has become known for his electrifying live performances that can feel more like a peace rally than a standard music concert. As a result, Franti has inspired and motivated fans, critics and fellow songwriters to action through his work.

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Neil Young

Neil Young
Neil Young. courtesy Special Ops Media

From his work with Crosby Stills Nash and Young to his numerous solo albums, Neil Young has been a serious force in the folk-rock world. Due to his innovative blend of hard rock guitars with folky, rootsy lyrics and themes, Young has become one of the most influential artists in contemporary folk-rock.

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Nickel Creek
Nickel Creek. courtesy Sacks & Co.

Although they started out as more of a bluegrass group, Nickel Creek evolved, over the course of their 20 years, into more of a generalized folk group. With their prodigious instrumental skills, the trio blended jazz, folk, rock and bluegrass on originals and covers alike.

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Odetta. photo: Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images

One thing you always hear when people talk about Odetta is the exceptional power of her voice. She's possibly one of the most impressive vocalists in contemporary folk music. She began performing when she was 19 and rose to fame through singing classic African-American spirituals.

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Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin. photo: Amy Sussman / Getty Images

Patty Griffin is a songwriter's songwriter and has become highly respected across all musical genres for her numerous compositions. She's also an award-winning artist in her own right and has recorded album after album of incredible folk, gospel and blues songs.

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Paul Robeson Album Cover
Paul Robeson Album Cover. © Vanguard

Much like Odetta, often when you hear talk of Paul Robeson, you'll hear about his incredible voice. He had a very low bass voice and was renowned for bringing some classic African-American spirituals like "Go Down Moses" to national and international attention. He became so popular and influential, in fact, that he managed to get his own U.S. postal stamp—not something with which many folksingers have been honored.

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Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger. © Sony

Pete Seeger is, undeniably, one of the most prolific and influential artists in the history of American music. From his time with the Almanac Singers to the Weavers, his refusal to testify in the McCarthy era, and subsequent blacklisting. He went on to be an instrumental force in the '60s folk revival and helping organize during the Civil Rights movement and the peace movement. He's written some of the most covered tunes in folk history.

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Peter, Paul & Mary Album Cover
Peter, Paul & Mary Album Cover. © Rhino

Even though they were pieced together with the intention of being an ideal folk-pop money-making supergroup, there's not a lot about Peter, Paul & Mary that was contrived. A rather talented trio of artists, Peter, Paul & Mary also became vocal advocates in the peace movement, and continue to be a force to be reckoned with in contemporary folk music.

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Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs. © Robert Corwin

Phil Ochs is known for writing exceptional protest songs, and he spared nobody with his sharp tongue. His early songs were brief and sharp topical songs like "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "Draft Dodger Rag." Later in his career, his songs became longer and more introspective and narrative. Regardless, Ochs is considered one of ​the more gifted songwriters of his generation.

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Ramblin' Jack Elliot
Ramblin' Jack Elliot. © Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com

One of Woody Guthrie's most dedicated proteges, Ramblin' Jack earned his reputation as a tall tale teller and folk singer. He traveled with Guthrie for a half-decade and has since recorded 50 albums. The film The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack was made about his life.

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Richard Shindell CD Cover
Richard Shindell CD Cover. © Shanachie

Richard Shindell started working in music with the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (with fellow incredible songwriter John Gorka). Even though he'd been playing music his whole life, Shindell didn't start making waves in the folk world until Joan Baez picked up three of his songs for her 1997 album. Since then, he's become a highly influential songwriter.

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Simon and Garfunkel Album Cover
Simon and Garfunkel Album Cover. © Sony

Although both Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon have had careers since the duo split up, and although Paul Simon has become a rather influential, prolific songwriter, it's hard to deny the level of artistry they were able to achieve as a pair.

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Steve Earle
Steve Earle. © Jeff Patterson

Speaking of proteges, Steve Earle was somewhat of a Townes Van Zandt protege and has been known to call Townes a better songwriter than Bob Dylan. Earle's brand of country-folk protest music sets him apart from his peers.

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Tom Paxton CD Cover
Tom Paxton CD Cover. © Elektra Records

In terms of topical and protest songwriting, Tom Paxton is one of the best there is. In the last 40 years, he's released more than 50 records and has become a rather respected songwriter in the realm of protest song. His classic, "What Did You Learn in School Today?" is one of the best topical tunes about the American educational system.

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Tom Waits

Tom Waits
Tom Waits. photo: Scott Gries / Getty Images

Singer/songwriter Tom Waits is probably one of the contemporary folk artists most well-respected outside of contemporary folk music. His gritty voice and dark, dirty songs have almost a punk-rock sensibility. He's also become a star of the big screen, lending his talents to more than 50 films.

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Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt CD Cover
Townes Van Zandt CD Cover. courtesy townesvanzandt.com

Townes Van Zandt could be considered one of the best songwriters of all time. Indeed, there aren't a lot of songwriters working these days who don't feel some reverence towards his work. His songs are very deeply personal narratives about life in general, and they've been performed by so many other artists, it's hard to count.

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Utah Phillips CD Cover
Utah Phillips CD Cover. © Daemon Records

Utah Phillips has made it his life's work to sing the songs and tell the stories of the working class. He frequently pulls from the Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) songbook and his live shows are peppered with as much silliness as serious protest songs. He's received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Alliance and continues to tour nationwide.

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The Weavers CD Cover
The Weavers CD Cover. © Prism Entertainment

The Weavers spun off from the earlier group the Almanac Singers, in which Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were core members. Although this quartet only enjoyed a few years of success, those few years managed to help inspire a generation to turn their eyes and ears toward traditional American folk music. Many have credited the Weavers with helping to fuel the folk revival that followed their success and subsequent blacklisting during the McCarthy era.

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Woody Guthrie CD Cover
Woody Guhrie CD Cover. © Smithsonian Folkways

It's kind of funny that the Weavers and Woody Guthrie come up last in this alphabetical listing, as they're probably two of the most important artists in the history of the contemporary folk movement in this country. Guthrie wrote thousands of songs in his lifetime, many of which are still being found. Among them were love songs, songs of praise, silly children's songs, songs about nature, and topical protest songs. If any songwriter could be called "prolific" or "influential," those term would certainly apply to Woody Guthrie.