The Ten Most Popular American Folk Songs of All Time


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The Ten Most Popular American Folk Songs of All Time

Folk music can be said to be the oldest form of music in the world. Most every genre of music from rap to country to rock has its roots in folk music. American artists like Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are just a few examples of musicians who brought folk music to the mainstream in the U.S.

Some of the most popular American folk songs have been around for decades and even centuries. They’ve been covered time and again by musicians of many different genres. These ten are among the most popular American folk songs of all time:

1) “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Even school children know this common ditty. Few people realize its roots are spiritual in nature. It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. It’s likely, however, that it had already been sung for years by African slaves in the U.S. before being officially published.

2) “This Land is Your Land.” This American folk song is more of a newcomer in comparison to those with Negro spiritual beginnings. It was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940. He recorded it in 1944. Its patriotic lyrics are popular even after more than half a century. It was chosen as one of fifty recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2002.

3) “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” This is another example of a folk song with Negro spiritual roots. It dates back to at least 1865 during the slave era. It was originally sung as a Christmas song, since it refers to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Nativity. It has been borrowed and re-written with more modern themes, including civil liberties. However, it remains by and large a Christmas tune. It is one of the most covered and re-recorded folk songs in U.S. history.

4) “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This well-known ditty was written by Bob Dylan and released in his 1965 album “Bringing it All Back Home.” Dylan is widely known for his lyrical style and departure from the “norms” of pop music. The inspiration for this song is speculative and prodigious, but it is well-loved for its poetic language. Ironically, the version that is better known is The Byrds cover. Both Dylan’s and The Byrd’s version graces Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

5) “The Wabash Cannonball.” It tells the story of a fictional train, but the song probably didn’t refer to the train by that name until after it first originated. The first known documentation of this folk song is in 1882, credited to J.A. Roff. It was called “The Great Rock Island Route.” Later, those words were replaced with “The Wabash Cannonball” and the song was subsequently recorded under that title.

6) “Feelin’ Groovy (The 59th Street Bridge Song.)” This Simon and Garfunkel tune was released in 1966. It refers to New York’s famous Queensborough Bridge. The song isn’t particularly rife with deep with poetic meaning. Rather, it’s a lighthearted number, but one that struck a chord with American listeners all the same.

7) “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” This folk song can probably be attributed to a number of sources. However, the main body of the song was written in the 1960′s by Pete Seeger. The original version, about the ravages of war, had three stanzas. Two more verses were added by Joe Hickerson after Seeger first recorded it without much fanfare. It grew in popularity after it was covered by a number of other famous artists.

8) “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Bob Dylan graces the list once again with this well-known American folk song. His 1963 release doesn’t refer to a specific event. Instead, it asks a series of rhetorical questions about life, liberty and justice. It challenges the listener to look for the answer right in front of him because it’s “blowin’ in the wind.”

9) “If I Had a Hammer.” This simple song is more commonly attributed to the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. They recorded their version in the early 1960′s. However, it was actually penned by Pete Seeger in 1949 in support of the progressive movement in the U.S. Seeger’s version received nary a nod by the public. The political climate seemed more open when the Peter, Paul and Mary version released. It has since been covered by numerous other artists.

10) “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre.” Arlo Guthrie, son of Woody Guthrie authored and “sang” this satirical song about the Viet Nam draft. The lyrics are actually spoken rather than sung (an Arlo Guthrie signature.) The song itself lasts for eighteen minutes, a fact that also has historical significance.

Of course, everyone would have a somewhat different “top 10″ list, but at least a few of these 10 will probably make most everyone’s list. For more information on folk music and folk songs, click on the underlined Wikipedia link.

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