Important Women in Folk Music

A look at some of the great women of American folk music

Women have played an extraordinary part in American History. Whether moving toward freedom from slavery, freedom in the workplace, or the freedom to make one's own choices, women have positioned themselves as voices of empowerment and endurance. These women have lent their incredibly important voices in the struggle for their own rights, civil rights, human rights, and the movement for peace. The women of American Folk Music are no exception. Here's a look at 30 notable women in folk, roots, and Americana music, in alphabetical order.

01
of 30

Alison Krauss

American musician Alison Krauss performs live on stage with Union Station during the third day of Hard Rock Calling at Hyde Park on July 15, 2012 in London, England.
Jim Dyson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Prodigious fiddle player Alison Krauss has become one of the most in-demand women of the folk and bluegrass worlds. Just about every record that comes out of Nashville these days seems to have something to do with Alison Krauss. Her beautiful songs and distinct voice, along with her just absolutely likable presence, make her a hard act to beat. She's managed to influence a whole generation of artists in folk, bluegrass, old time, and rock and roll alike.

02
of 30

Ani DiFranco

Ani DiFranco
© Danny Clinch

Ani DiFranco has been releasing records on her own, with her fierce feminist folk songs for over 20 years. Her innovative guitar work has revolutionized the way the instrument is played. She's started and maintained one of the most successful artist-run labels around and has lent her voice and muscle to the preservation of civil rights and her hometown of Buffalo, NY. And, in spite of all this, she continues to write timeless and beautiful music.

Be Good Tanyas
Be Good Tanyas. © Robert Karpa

The Be Good Tanyas are a trio of women who have been delivering incredible harmony-driven contemporary folk songs for years now. Pulling from traditional music and updating it for a new generation, the Tanyas have become a favorite on festival stages and among their cult-like following. More »

Catie Curtis
Catie Curtis. courtesy Compass Records

Catie Curtis has been writing earnest love songs for over a decade. Her sentimental songs about longing and heartache have kept her in the hearts of fans of the New England songwriter scene all the while. She's also been a tireless and vocal advocate for gay rights and, with Mark Erelli, won the International Songwriting Competition for her Hurricane Katrina-inspired song "People Look Around." More »

Claire Lynch Band
Claire Lynch Band. photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com

Claire Lynch has long been a champion of the contemporary and traditional bluegrass scene, earning several accolades for her expert vocals from the International Bluegrass Music Association. While she's experimented with different traditional Americana styles through the years, its bluegrass for which she's best known. More »

06
of 30

Dar Williams

Dar Williams
Dar Williams. photo: Fernando Leon/Getty Images

Dar Williams first appeared on the New England songwriter scene in the 1990s and has since become a mainstay of the national contemporary folk music scene. A favorite at festivals and in theaters alike, Williams is also a staunch environmentalist who has frequently used her work to raise money for earth-conscious organizations.

07
of 30

Eliza Gilkyson

Eliza Gilkyson
Eliza Gilkyson. © Red House Records

Eliza Gilkyson's musical gift may have been inherited from her songwriter dad, Terry Gilkyson, but she's certainly carved her own niche in the contemporary singer-songwriter world. Tending more toward the alt-country end of the spectrum, Gilkyson is a favorite at folk festivals.

08
of 30

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris
Emmylou Harris. Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Emmylou Harris' career has run the gamut back and forth between classic style country music and contemporary folk, ever since her debut in the 1970s. She's always managed to defy musical genres, though, by sticking to a determination to sing honest songs, from wherever they may come. Her three-decade career has outlasted so many trends as to make her one of the most reliable singer-songwriters on the scene.

09
of 30

Erin McKeown

Erin McKeown
Erin McKeown. photo: Kim Ruehl/About.com

Erin McKeown has been a staple of the New England songwriting scene since her debut in the 1990s. With a degree in ethnomusicology, she is a consummate experimenter with musical styles. Her work has ranged from folk-punk to jazz and beyond, and she continues to release surprising, excellent records one after the other.

10
of 30

Holly Near

Holly Near
Holly Near. © Pat Hunt

Holly Near has been making records for over thirty years now, and her influence has not yet stopped being felt in American folk music, and beyond. She started one of the first ever woman-owned record companies in 1972 when she opened her own Redwood Records. For her advocacy of human, civil, and women's rights around the world, in 2005, Holly was named one of the 1000 Women for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch. © Glen Rose

Gillian Welch burst on the scene in the 1990s, but became a force to reckon with during her involvement with the soundtrack to Her command of traditional Americana styles—from country to classic folk—and her haunting, narrative original songs have won her a faithful following. More »

12
of 30

Hazel Dickens

Hazel Dickens CD
Hazel Dickens CD. © Rounder Records

Hazel Dickens is one of bluegrass music's greatest contributors. Over the course of the last three decades, she's delivered album after album of provocative working class music, bluegrass, folk, and protest songs.

13
of 30

Indigo Girls

Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls. © Kim Ruehl / About.com

With their rich harmonies and their smooth, melodic counterpoint guitar work, the Indigo Girls have carved out a distinct niche for themselves in the area of folk-pop. They're also fierce activists for civil and human rights, as well as spokespeople for the Native American traditional community. Indigo Girl Amy Ray runs a small not-for-profit record company that helps expose audiences to great artists running the gamut from Danielle Howle to legendary Utah Phillips.

14
of 30
Janis Ian
© Beth Gwinn

Janis Ian started her career when she was just a child. Even still, Ian continues to release outstanding CDs one after the other. Her prolific songwriting ability has made her a real force to be reckoned with. Janis has continually taken a stand against the big business record companies. More »

15
of 30

Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading
Joan Armatrading. photo: Getty Images

British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading has spent decades exploring various styles of Americana, from blues to jazz and contemporary folk. Through the years, she's managed to influence countless artists with her fearless innovative style and continues to deliver remarkable work.

16
of 30

Joan Baez

Joan Baez
Joan Baez. © Dana Tynan

Few women in American folk music have had a more direct and integral impact on positive changes in America than Joan Baez. Her efforts combined with the efforts of others during the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements helped to directly change the course of American history. Joan was also undeniably one of the most famous women of the 1960s folk revival and has enjoyed one of the fullest, more prolific careers.

Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom. photo: Mike Flokis/Getty Images

Joanna Newsom is one of the most inventive new singer-songwriters on the scene. One of the artists frequently lumped in the hard-to-define freak folk category, Newsom's dreamy, harp-driven songs have attracted considerable attention over the course of her still brief career. More »

18
of 30

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell. © Steve Dulson

Joni Mitchell and her hundreds of alternate tunings have no doubt influenced the way so many women attack the acoustic guitar even to this day. Her poetic lyrics and her stunning soprano voice have infected the record collections of other songwriters and fans of just about every musical genre. Even though she often considers herself more of a painter than a songwriter, songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" will always be timeless classics and inspirations to female songwriters.

Judy Collins
Judy Collins. © Wildflower

Judy Collins was a great champion of the topical folk song movement of the 1960s and has, as such, become a bit of a feminist icon. While she started her career recording traditional songs and those of her contemporaries, the late 1960s saw her recording her own originals. More »

20
of 30

k.d. lang

k.d. lang
k.d. lang. © Victoria Pearson

k.d. lang's career started with kitschy classic-style country music and has evolved over the years to focusing hard on her extraordinary vocal skills. Though she's become known for being a bit of a crooner, her influences in classic country and contemporary folk shine through. She's become one of Canada's greatest contributions to Americana music.

21
of 30

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams. photo: Robert Mora/Getty Images

Lucinda Williams is one of the most lauded and respected women in the alt-country and roots music worlds these days. From her deep, dark songs of heartbreak and longing to her more recent material, which is decidedly more upbeat, Williams pulls influences from traditional and contemporary folk styles. In the process, she's managed to inspire and influence countless other artists over the course of her decades in music.

Peter, Paul and Mary
Peter, Paul and Mary. photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Mary Travers is best known as one-third of Peter, Paul, and Mary. One of the most respected women of the 1960s folk revival, Travers has been a staunch advocate in the ongoing peace and human rights movements. More »

23
of 30

Neko Case

Neko Case
Neko Case. © Dennis Kleiman

Neko Case is one of the most respected singer-songwriters in alt-country these days. Known for her excellent live shows and imaginative lyrics, Case's songs stretch the limits of contemporary roots music.

24
of 30

Odetta

Odetta
Odetta. Photo: Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images

One thing people say about Odetta is that her stage presence blows them away. Odetta's presence onstage, along with her inimitably powerful voice, helped to get her recognized by Harry Belafonte as a force to be reckoned with; and it was Belafonte that helped start her career. During the Civil Rights movement, Odetta served as an influence and inspiration for direct action. She continued to bring her extraordinary voice and presence to the civil rights movement and other facets of American folk music until her death in 2008.

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

Patty Griffin has long been loved by fellow songwriters for her soulful, genre-defying story songs. Her songs have been covered by everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Kelly Clarkson, and her albums have garnered praise from fans and critics alike, as well as numerous award nominations. More »

Rhonda Vincent
Rhonda Vincent. photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Rhonda Vincent has been playing bluegrass music for much of her life. First as a member of her family band and later as a solo artist with her own band, the Rage, Vincent has become a force in the contemporary bluegrass world. She's consistently won honors and awards from the IBMA and other organizations—over 40 in all. More »

Rosalie Sorrels CD
Rosalie Sorrels CD. © Green Linnet

Rosalie Sorrels is one of folk music's great treasured artists. As an activist, storyteller, and singer-songwriter, Sorrels has touched countless other artists and music fans alike. Over the course of six decades, she's brought folk music to venues and crowds of all sizes and continues to tour and perform regularly. More »

Shawn Colvin
Shawn Colvin. courtesy Buzztone PR

Shawn Colvin's recording career has been fairly brief in comparison with her four-decades-long career as a performer. Nonetheless, over the course of her half-dozen studio albums, she's become a mainstay on the festival and songwriter circuit. Her songs are reliably good and full of heartbreaking tales of longing; her skills as a guitar player are not to be ignored, either. More »

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega. photo: Mike Flokis/Getty Images

Although she may not be embraced entirely by traditionalist folkies, Suzanne Vega did start her career in the New York City folk music and singer-songwriter circle. In the 20 years since her crossover hit "Luka" broke, Vega has become known for her willingness to defy definition and focus on just telling great stories in great songs. She continues to be one of contemporary folk music's most reliable innovators. More »

30
of 30

Sweet Honey In the Rock

Sweet Honey in the Rock
© Earthbeat Records

Founded in 1973, Sweet Honey In the Rock has been an incredible influence in the areas of folk and gospel music. Their outstanding a cappella arrangements and their big sound have built them an important space in American folk music history. The women of Sweet Honey also incorporate African hand percussion instruments into their mix and bring home some of the most unforgettable songs around.