American folk songs: 10 of the best
Our guide to the 10 best American folk songs of all time
Representing the USA's richly varied folk tradition in just ten of the best songs is no mean feat. Odds are that we've left out some real smashers, and you may well disagree with our choices.
Still, we've done our best to put together a list that at least whets the appetite for further exploration. Here it is.
Best American folk songs
This Land is Your Land
Written by American singer Woody Guthrie in 1940, 'This Land is Your Land' was intended as a critical response to Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America'. Guthrie originally gave it the sarcastic title of 'God Blessed America for Me'.
But, following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he returned to supporting the US and its involvement in Europe, renaming his song in the process and dropping verses that were critical of the United States. Nowadays it is often dubbed as an alternative US national anthem.
Although this song has been miscredited many times, the real artist behind it was Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987): a self-taught African-American guitarist who, from the age of 13, worked as a maid, and only began performing publicly and recording in her sixties.
She wrote 'Freight Train' - probably her signature song - while still a young girl, inspired by the memory of a nearby train that she could hear from her childhood home in North Carolina. But it was decades later, with advocacy from the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and her family, for whom Cotten worked as a housekeeper, that she got the recognition she deserved for it.
Down by the Riverside
With roots dating back to before the American Civil War, this African-American spiritual was first published in 1918. By World War II there were at least 14 black gospel recordings of it and since then it has been used several times as an anti-war protest song, especially during the Vietnam War, thanks to pacifist lines such as 'Gonna lay down my sword and shield / Gonna stick my sword in the golden sand.'
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Blue Moon of Kentucky
One of the earliest examples of Bluegrass music, this plaintive waltz was written by Bill Monroe in 1945 and has since become a classic. It was the first song that Elvis Presley ever recorded, and has also been covered by the likes of the Stanley Brothers, Patsy Cline and Sir Paul McCartney. It remains the official state song of Kentucky.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain
First written by Harry McClintock in 1895, this catchy country folk song is about a hobo's idea of paradise: a place where 'hens lay soft-boiled eggs', where 'the handouts grow on bushes' and there are 'cigarette trees'. McClintock based the song on memories of hoboing through the United States as a youth while working for the railroad as a brakeman. The original version, which he sang as a street busker, was significantly more disturbing, describing a child being recruited into hobo life. But it was the sanitized edit, which was recorded by Burl Ives in 1949, that achieved widespread popularity.
Deep River Blues
This song was recorded in 1964 by Doc Watson, the guitarist, singer and songwriter who, despite being blind from a young age, grew up to become one of the US's legendary bluesmen, winning seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. Comprising a traditional tune in a complex arrangement, it showcases Watson's formidable finger-picking technique.
Michael Row the Boat Ashore
This haunting African-American spiritual was sung on St Helena Island, South Carolina, by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island during the American Civil War.
William Francis Allen, an academic who, with his wife, ran a school for newly-emancipated slaves, reported in 1863 that the former slaves sang the song as they rowed him in a boat across Station Creek. His cousin, Charles Pickard Ware, also wrote down the song in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it.
He and Allen later joined forces with the song collector Lucy McKim Garrison to publish it in their joint volume: Slave Songs of the United States. It is still one of the US's most famous folk songs, sung by children and adults alike.
Mr Tambourine Man
Well-loved for its expansive melody and poetic, surrealist lyrics, this song was written in 1964 by Bob Dylan, who credited French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini as inspirations.
People have variously interpreted it as a paean to drugs, a vision of mortality, or a meditation on the meaning of escape. One thing is certain though: it's as catchy as anything, which helps to explain why it has been performed and recorded so many times by artists as diverse as the Byrds, Judy Collins, Odetta, and Stevie Wonder.
Go Tell it on the Mountain
This anonymous African-American spiritual hymn dates back to the mid-19th century. John Wesley Work Jr, who collected spirituals, first published it in 1907 in his book New Jubilee Songs and Folk Songs of the American Negro.
But by then it had already come to the public eye thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a cappella ensemble, who toured the country in the 19th century singing spirituals to raise money for the newly-created college for blacks following the abolition of slavery. Telling the story of the nativity, 'Go Tell It On The Mountain' is also a popular Christmas carol.
Blaze Foley, a frequently homeless wanderer who released this song a month before his violent death in 1989, was relatively little-known in his lifetime. Many of his recordings were lost, one of them confiscated in a DEA drug raid. Yet, in the years since his death he has been elevated to something of a folk hero, and 'Clay Pigeons' - popularised in a cover by John Prine - is probably his best-known song. Essentially a meditation on the importance of picking yourself up after a fall and starting again, it is masterfully simple and packed with emotion.
Main image: Woody Guthrie © New York World-Telegram & Sun.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.