Folk Alley’s 100 essential folk songs


First, the list.  Discussion and explanation later:

Folk Alley’s The 100 Essential Folk Songs

1. “This Land Is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie
2. “Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan
3. “City of New Orleans” – Steve Goodman
4. “If I Had a Hammer” – Pete Seeger
5. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” – The Kingston Trio
6. “Early Morning Rain” – Gordon Lightfoot
7. “Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
8. “We Shall Overcome” – Pete Seeger
9. “Four Strong Winds” – Ian and Sylvia
10. “Last Thing on My Mind” – Tom Paxton
11. “The Circle Game” – Joni Mitchell
12. “Tom Dooley” – The Kingston Trio (Trad)
13. “Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell
14. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” – Sandy Denny
15. “Goodnight Irene” – The Weavers (Trad)
16. “Universal Soldier” – Buffy Sainte-Marie
17. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – Bob Dylan
18. “Diamonds and Rust” – Joan Baez
19. “Sounds of Silence” – Simon & Garfunkel
20. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot
21. “Alice’s Restaurant” – Arlo Guthrie
22. “Turn, Turn, Turn!” – The Byrds (Pete Seeger)
23. “Puff the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul and Mary
24. “Thirsty Boots” – Eric Anderson
25. “There But for Fortune” – Phil Ochs
26. “Across the Great Divide” – Kate Wolf
27. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – The Band (Robbie Robertson)
28. “The Dutchman” – Steve Goodman
29. “Matty Groves” – Fairport Convention (Trad)
30. “Pastures of Plenty” – Woody Guthrie
31. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” – Gordon Lightfoot
32. “Ramblin’ Boy” – Tom Paxton
33. “Hello in There” – John Prine
34. “The Mary Ellen Carter” – Stan Rogers
35. “Scarborough Fair” – Martin Carthy (Trad)
36. “Freight Train” – Elizabeth Cotton
37. “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
38. “Paradise” – John Prine
39. “Northwest Passage” – Stan Rogers
40. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” – Eric Bogel
41. “Changes” – Phil Ochs
42. “Streets of London” – Ralph McTell
43. “Gentle on My Mind” – John Hartford
44. “Barbara Allen” – Shirley Collins (Trad)
45. “Little Boxes” – Malvina Reynolds
46. “The Water Is Wide” – Traditional
47. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” – Bill Monroe
48. “No Regrets” – Tom Rush
49. “Amazing Grace” – Odetta (Trad)
50. “Catch the Wind” – Donovan
51. “If I Were a Carpenter” – Tim Hardin
52. “Big Yellow Taxi” – Joni Mitchell
53. “House of the Rising Sun” – Doc & Richard Watson (Trad)
54. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” – The Weavers
55. “Tangled Up in Blue” – Bob Dylan
56. “The Boxer” – Simon and Garfunkel
57. “Someday Soon” – Ian and Sylvia
58. “[500?] Miles” – Peter, Paul and Mary
59. “Masters of War” – Bob Dylan
60. “Wildwood Flower” – Carter Family
61. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” – Carter Family
62. “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound” – Tom Paxton
63. “Teach Your Children” – Crosby, Stills Nash & Young
64. “Deportee” – Woody Guthrie
65. “Tecumseh Valley” – Townes Van Zandt
66. “Mr. Bojangles” – Jerry Jeff Walker
67. “Cold Missouri Waters” – James Keeleghan
68. “The Crucifixion” – Phil Ochs
69. “Angel from Montgomery” – John Prine
70. “Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon
71. “John Henry” – Traditional
72. “Pack Up Your Sorrows” – Richard and Mimi Farina
73. “Dirty Old Town” – Ewan MacColl
74. “Caledonia” – Dougie MacLean
75. “Gentle Arms of Eden” – Dave Carter
76. “My Back Pages” – Bob Dylan
77. “Arrow” – Cheryl Wheeler
78. “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen
79. “Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire
80. “Man of Constant Sorrow” – Ralph Stanley (Trad)
81. “Shady Grove” – Traditional
82. “Pancho and Lefty” – Townes Van Zandt
83. “Old Man” – Neil Young
84. “Mr. Tambourine Man” – Bob Dylan
85. “American Tune” – Paul Simon
86. “At Seventeen” – Janis Ian
87. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Simon & Garfunkel
88. “Road” – Nick Drake
89. “Tam Lin” – Fairport Convention (Trad)
90. “Ashokan Farewell” – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
91. “Desolation Row” – Bob Dylan
92. “Love Is Our Cross to Bear” – John Gorka
93. “Hobo’s Lullaby” – Woody Guthrie
94. “Urge for Going” – Tom Rush
95. “Return of the Grievous Angel” – Gram Parsons
96. “Chilly Winds” – The Kingston Trio
97. “Fountain of Sorrow” – Jackson Browne
98. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” – Bob Dylan
99. “Our Town” – Iris Dement
100. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” – John Denver

Folk Alley is the name of an online stream from Kent State University’s WKSU, an NPR-affiliated station that offers several genres of music and public affairs programs. A 24-hour stream of folk music is rare, and the programmers probably are among the best qualified to assemble a list like this — even though it is popularly voted. NPR described it:

Folk Alley, the 24-hour online stream of Kent State University’s WKSU, has never hopped on or off any folk-music bandwagons. Which, in turn, makes it a perfect place to explore the genre’s many permutations, from bare-bones acoustic protest music to the many forms of electric roots music that followed. Folk Alley recently spent eight weeks polling its listeners in search of a master list of “The 100 Most Essential Folk Songs.” The results — found here in the form of a printable list and a continuous music mix, streamed in no particular order — are fodder for debate, discussion and discovery.

You can listen to the songs on the list from the WKSU feed, here.

If you are a fan of folk music, you probably have a few bones to pick with the list, no?

It is a modern list.  It is heavy on compositions since 1960 — admittedly a heyday for folk music, and a great time that produced a lot of material to write folk songs about.  I wonder and worry whether some of these songs are really so much in the folk tradition.  I love the Byrds version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a song my band covered years ago and which makes me yearn to be back in the band with Leon Anderson shooting out the dissected chords from his electric 12-string guitar.  But it’s a rock and roll song.  It’s a modern composition.

Of course, it’s a modern composition from an ancient tune, Seeger says (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) with lyrics adapted from one of the oldest folk traditions we have (Ecclesiastes in the Bible).  A fair reading notes there is a lot of gray area there, with no bright lines.

Still, I think there are notable omissions that really should be there.

For example, the Shaker song, “A Gift to be Simple,” is as much in the folk tradition as anything there.  But it also is the inspiration for a wonderful classical composition by Aaron Copeland.  Shouldn’t it be listed just for that reason alone, let alone its influence on other singers, writers and songs?

One can make  a similar argument for “Greensleeves,” which inspired entire collections of folk versions and classical compositions.

I think history is slighted, too. I can see why “Yankee Doodle” might be overlooked, it’s so ubiquitous.  But should it be overlooked?  How about the Civil War song, “John Brown’s Body.”  What summer camper won’t sing something based on that this year?  Heck, if we’re including Neil Young’s “Old Man,” why not some Irving Berlin?  “Over There” and “You’re in the Army Now, Mr. Jones,” have no less stature in history and folk music.

How about a Stephen Foster tune?  “Camptown Races” alone should outshine 40 or 50 songs on the list.

Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow” as a folk song?  If we allow him in, why not the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth,” even if you have to list it as a Joan Baez performance?

I’m wondering about the list of “100 Great Folk Songs that Didn’t Make the List?”

I’m also looking at my collection, and wondering if I shouldn’t rush to the local CD shops and internet to supplement some of these great songs on the list that I don’t have.  Somebody borrowed my Phil Ochs — 20 years ago?

What great folk songs do you know that are missing from the list, that probably ought to be there?  List them in comments — let’s not let our heritage be reduced to an inadequate list!  (The people at WKSU are really super — check out their own comments list, with a lot of suggestions for tunes that should be there, and others that should not.)

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16 Responses to Folk Alley’s 100 essential folk songs

  1. […] Folk Alley’s 100 Essential Folk Songs […]


  2. Don Winter says:

    Crucify Your Mind by Sixto Rodriguez should be included.


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Dion’s tune was folk? It’s more folkie than a lot of the stuff on the list, certainly.

    Didn’t somebody else do a great version of that song? Richie Havens, maybe?


  4. John Uhrmann says:

    Duh-ignore me, it is at the top of the list. Computers and hangovers don’t mix together well. So I’ve got to come back somehow. Dion’s Abraham,Martin & John?


  5. John Uhrmann says:

    Missed “This land is your Land”? I would have guessed it close to the top of the list, unless I just missed it.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    “Rocky Raccoon” is folk?


  7. Sammy says:

    Can’t leave out Rocky Raccoon by the Beatles…


  8. dylan says:

    Great list. If you really enjoy folk music, then you might want to check out this folk music blog.

    Thanks for looking :)


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s always the problem with folk music, though, isn’t it? Must it be purely folk to be considered folk? When Bob Dylan started recording, people wondered whether such contemporary stuff should be considered folk — now, in contrast to some of the stuff on the list — even his most contemporary songs are old, redone, and folkish. What about Neil Young? He came out of the same Canadian town as Joni Mitchell, and certainly Buffalo Springfield was sold as a “folk rock” band. Does that count? “Ohio” was recorded with David Crosby, who rose to fame with the Byrds, who rockified some songs that must be considered folk, like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which was written by genuine folkie Pete Seeger . . .

    Still I think we can say this list skews toward the modern, and not the old; I think it’s fair to say that it skews to folkish music, and not necessarily folk. I mean, can’t we agree that Jerry Jeff Walker is more Austin Alt Country than folk? By what criterion do we say Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is folk, and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” is not?


  10. jd2718 says:

    Yeah, I’m looking at the list (before reading to the end) and saying, nice songs, but are they really folk? And how did they choose which versions they chose?

    I’ve said it about other stuff: top 100 list of anything? Personal, not authoritative.

    And since they can be personal, the creator can make their own inclusion/exclusion rules.

    I’d be happy to compare the WKSU top 100 to the Bathtub top 100. I’m guessing the Bathtub would be more authoritative, but appeal to me less (since I’m a modern kid).



  11. Ed Darrell says:

    So, um Richard: What was your point?

    And, what do you think of Folk Alley’s “Essential 100?” Got any additions?


  12. Bob Dylan Sued Over Dignity For Plagiarism

    Camden NJ June 2, 2009 -Few artists can lay claim to the controversy that has surrounded the career of songwriter James Damiano. Twenty-two years ago James Damiano began an odyssey that led him into a legal maelstrom with Bob Dylan that, to this day, fascinates the greatest of intellectual minds.

    As the curtain rises on the stage of deceit we learn that CBS used songs and
    lyrics for international recording artist, Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s name is credited to the songs. One of those songs is nominated for a Grammy as best rock song of the year. Ironically the title of that song is Dignity.

    Since auditioning for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the careers of music industry icons Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan, Pete Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, James has engaged in a multimillion dollar copyright infringement law suit with Bob Dylan.

    It is judicially uncontested by Bob Dylan and or Bob Dylan’s law firms Manatt, Phelps & Phillips , Parcher Hayes & Snyder, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, Heck Brown and Sherry and Sony House Counsel that Bob Dylan and people in Bob Dylan’s entourage have solicited James Damiano’s songs and music for over ten years and eleven months, as per the law suit.

    District Judge Jerome B. Simandle states in his decision “This court will accept as true Plaintiff’s allegations that Sony represented to him that he would be credited and compensated for his work if Dylan used it. Judge Simandle also stated in his decision “Plaintiff has demonstrated a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had access to his work.

    Richard Frankel


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    Did I mention “Sweet Betsy from Pike?”


  14. Onkel Bob says:

    Amazing! They compiled one hundred songs and left out the Grateful Dead! Obviously, they know very little about music.

    A few (of the hundreds) that should be there:
    Cumberland Blues,
    Black Peter,
    The Eleven,
    Brown Eyed Women,
    Minglewood Blues,
    I Know You Rider,
    The latter two traditional arranged by the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead and in particular Jerry Garcia, did quite a bit to revive Bluegrass music tradition. I have fond memories of seeing Jerry play the banjo with David Grisman. Old and in the Way recorded a number of good songs,
    Pig in a Pen,
    Midnight Moonlight,
    On and On.

    Marty Robbins’s El Paso was another tune recorded and played by the Dead. Is it too “country” to be folk?

    As for the uber-classic “Greensleeves,” leaving it out is a travesty beyond the pale. It came over on the boats that carried the first immigrants. Same goes for Jack A Roe, another English folk tune adopted by first immigrants.


  15. sbh says:

    “Those Were the Days” – The Limeliters
    “That’s the Way It’s Gonna Be” – The Mitchell Trio


  16. Bryan says:

    “Ohio” – Neil Young
    “Southern Man” – Neil Young
    “No Man’s Land” – Eric Bogle


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