Folk Music Documentaries

Best Movies for Folk Music Fans

Below, you'll find a brief list of documentaries about artists and communities driven by folk music, which is a good place to start for students looking into folk music history, as well as for long-time folk music fans. Among these documentaries are several about the mid-20th Century folk music revival as well as one that was made recently, funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, to tell the story of the millennial folk boom. It's the first film I know of about the current re-popularization of folk music and the people who are making it on a grassroots level. You'll also see a film about the very non-commercial folk music used in the civil rights era, which profiles how music was used to move that moment in history, and where those old songs and hymns came from. (Many had been used earlier, during a swell in the labor movement, while others arose from the hymnals in African-American churches.) 

So, if you're loking for a study guide that'll entertain you, read on for some great documentaries about the history of American folk music

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Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. Shangri-La Entertainment

There is no question that Pete Seeger has been one of the most important and influential forces in contemporary American folk music. A champion for traditional song as well as keep-it-simple new folk songwriting, Seeger has been credited with contributing to everything from "We Shall Overcome" to "If I Had a Hammer." He was blacklisted for refusing to distance himself from communist ideas. He was instrumental in the development of the Newport Folk Festival. And he's used music and activism for years to help clean up the Hudson River. No contemporary songwriter has been quite so richly intertwined with the history through which he's lived, making this a stirring documentary not only about Pete Seeger, but about the times his music has touched.
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Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound. Razor & Tie

I don't think I ever really appreciated the extraordinary courage of Joan Baez until I saw this film. Of course, we all know her as an ardent activist for peace and social justice, who has used traditional songs to compell people toward understanding one another, for decades. But the detail in this documentary underscores the incredible commitment Baez has had, all her life, toward a better world. It's not just a social justice documentary, though, as it also shows where this commitment intersects with the way she has handled her career as one of the most beloved American folksingers. 
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FOLK: A Film. Sara Terry

One assumption I hear all the time is that folk music is something that happened in the 1960s. Sure, that's true, but that's not even the half of it. From the founding of America until now (and, likely, for all of the forseeable future), folk music has been in the fabric of the American experience. This wonderful documentary follows a handful of folksingers working on the circuit now, in the 20-teens, highlighting annual Folk Alliance gatherings and the never-a-dull-moment reality of life on the road as an American folksinger. 
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Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt - Soundtrack for the film 'Be Here to Love Me'
Townes Van Zandt - Soundtrack for the film 'Be Here to Love Me'. © Fat Possum

There are few songwriters at work these days who wouldn't cite Townes Van Zandt as a major influence. Those who wouldn't probably just don't know his work all that well. Van Zandt was one of the most gifted songwriters to touch the form, and his influence has been felt from obscure folk to mainstream country. But, his life was full of hardship and heartbreak. This arresting documentary balances the music and the life beautifully, not glossing over any of the ugly details, but also not glorifying them for the sake of selling his art. A wonderful watch for long-time fans or those who are even just curious about who Townes Van Zandt was.
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For folks interested in the history of protest and topical commentary in American folk music, there's no better place to start than with the incomparable Phil Ochs. Ochs never achieved the kind of fame in his lifetime that perhaps he deserved, and his life itself was tumultuous and all too brief. But, he was committed heart and soul to, as one of his albums aptly put it, All the News That's Fit to Sing. This expansive documentary covers not only his life and incredible body of work, but also the way his legacy holds up even to this day.
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One of the singingest moments in American history was the era wherein the struggle for civil rights for African-American people, came to a head. The massive mobilization of the largest nonviolent social justice movement in American history was fueled by singing. Old labor movement protest songs, hymns, and timeless folk songs were adapted to sing out about the injustices people were facing. This incredible documentary touches on some of the most horrifying moments of the civil rights era and how people met those heartbreaks and came out the other side singing for freedom. It's a great history of the movement as well as being full of some of the most important American folk songs there ever were.
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No Direction Home
Bob Dylan: No Direction Home. Columbia Records

Bob Dylan may bristle at the idea that he ever was a folksinger, but - at least for a few years at the beginning of the 1960s - there was no more appropriate way to categorize his music. This remarkable, long documentary directed by the masterful Martin Scorsese, covers Bob Dylan's humble beginnings and his rocket-like ascent into superstardom. There are many movies and albums and books looking closer and deeper at what makes Dylan tick, but this documentary film comes across as the most thorough and honest, featuring interviews with everyone from Allen Ginsburg to Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk. 
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