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Best Indie Bluegrass Music and Folk Songs

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Layne plays several stringed instruments and has always been an appreciator of music and craft.

The Ultimate Folk Song Playlist

The Ultimate Folk Song Playlist

"Roots Music" in the United States

The United States is a fairly young country with a variety of influences from all over the world. Most folk music evolved out of the revolutionary period, as songs were brought over from England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Folk was also influenced by spirituals and gospel, which originated from African musical elements, as well as by the songs of the original indigenous people of the land. Cowboy songs, railroad songs, and maritime songs also emerged.

What we have now is a phenomenal collection of variance and sound which can be broken down by region. Some of these influences include:

  • Bluegrass
  • Appalachian folk
  • Gospel
  • Ballads
  • Blues
  • Country

While this list is not exhaustive, these tunes represent a beautiful variety of instruments like the banjo, mandolin, stand-up bass, slide guitar, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, ukulele, and the beautiful oral tradition of lyrics that are both sorrowful, hopeful, poetic, and speak of the country.

Top 15 Folk Song Playlist of All Time

  1. “Here in California”—Kate Wolf
  2. “Four Strong Winds”—Neil Young
  3. “My Morphine”—Gillian Welch
  4. “Shady Grove”—Jerry Garcia & David Grisman
  5. “They Call the Wind Maria”—The Kingston Trio
  6. “Falcon”—Richard and Mimi Farina
  7. “Steel Rails”—Alison Krauss
  8. “Wildwood Flower”—Emmylou Harris
  9. “Girl From the North Country”—Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
  10. “Little Satchel”—Tim and Debbie Yates, Jordan Rice
  11. “Tennessee Time”—Valerie June
  12. “Eagle Song”—The Staves
  13. “Love at the Five and Dime”—Nanci Griffith
  14. “Chelsea Morning”—Joni Mitchell
  15. “Ciamara ní Mi”—Peia Luzzi
  16. Bonus: "The Lilac & the Apple"—Kate Wolf

Video: "Here in California" by Kate Wolf

Kate Wolf Sings of the California Landscapes

Kate Wolf was an incredible folk singer and songwriter. She lived from 1942 to 1986 and although her career was shortened by her battle with leukemia, her lyrics have lasted. She is currently buried in Goodyears Bar, California.

Her songs are especially reminiscent of Northern California. Some of her well-known songs include "Here in California," "Across the Great Divide," "Give Yourself to Love." She is a San Francisco native, and both Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris have paid tribute to her.

Every year, the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival is hosted in Laytonville, California. Nina Gerber, one of her fellow and incredibly talented musicians, plays at the event.

When I was young my mamma told me

She said child take your time

Don't fall in love too quickly

Before you know the one

— Kate Wolf

"Four Strong Winds" Covered by Neil Young

Neil Young Rock Legend Delves Into Traditional Folk

Neil Young is Canadian, so it's no surprise that "Four Strong Winds" which was written by Canadian folk singers and songwriters Ian & Sylvia (a country music duo) became a favorite tune of his.

When Neil Young was younger, he used to play this song on the jukebox. He simply loved it. Years later, he recorded it in his 1978 album Comes a Time. Many of his live performances of this song loops in singer Emmylou Harris. The results are incredible.

Four strong winds that blow lonely

Seven seas that run high

All those things that don't change come what may

But our good times are all gone

And I'm bound for moving on

I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way

— Ian & Sylvia

"My Morphine" by Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Old Time to Rhythm and Blues

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are one incredible duo. They use their song lyrics to make exceptionally deep connections on topics like death, poverty, and addiction.

Gillian's haunting voice incorporates old-time elements and is often backed by her musical partner/guitarist David Rawlings. Some song elements include Appalachian influence, bluegrass, Americana, and country. Her performance of "Six White Horses" uses traditional percussion with the stomping of her feet to the rhythm of banjo and harmonica. It's simply beautiful.

David Rawling and Gillian Welch received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

I looked around and all up and down

I never wasted time on two or three

There's only one girl for me

There was a time she used to treat me fine

But lately she's been acting awful stoned

Makes a man weep alone

— Gillian Welch

"Shady Grove" Covered by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman

The Grateful Dead Perform Doc Watson

Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson is one of the most well-known bluegrass, folk, blues, gospel, and country singers. He's won seven Grammy awards for his flat-picking and finger-style guitar.

Many Deadheads know that the Grateful Dead carried the early influence of folk and bluegrass. This is clearly demonstrated in the Pizza Tapes in which Jerry Garcia and David Grisman cover "Shady Grove" by Doc Watson. It's an exceptional rendition full of fire and soul. For any bluegrass enthusiast, "Shady Grove" listening is a must.

Shady Grove, my little love

Shady Grove I say

Shady Grove, my little love

I'm bound to go away

— Doc Watson

"The Call the Wind Maria" by The Kingston Trio

The Kingston Trio of the '50s Folk Revival

The Kingston Trio is considered both of the American folk and pop music genre. This group was founded in San Francisco, California, at a time when there was an American folk revival.

They recorded songs like "Tom Dooley" and "They Call the Wind Maria" and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"—an anti-war song of the time. The lyrics are especially noteworthy: "Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards every one. When will they ever learn?"

They were thought to influence both the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. Their songs consist mainly of guitar, banjo, conga, and bongos.

A way out here

they got a name

for rain and wind and fire

the rain is Tess

the fires Joe

and they call the wind Maria

— The Kingston Trio

"Falcon" by Richard and Mimi Farina

Joan Baez's Sister: Mimi and Richard Farina

This duo is absolutely incredible—and their history together is short and tragic. Richard George Farina was a folksinger, songwriter, novelist, and poet that lived from 1937–1966. He was of Cuban and Irish ancestry. He met Mimi Baez in Europe, married her, and moved to Carmel, California. In 1964 they performed at the Big Sur Folk Festival. Instrumentally and vocally they were well-matched.

On April 30th, 1966, he was celebrating Mimi Farina's 21st birthday and hopped on a motorcycle. Fatefully, the motorcycle crashed and Richard died instantly. It is said that Joan Baez's "Sweet Sir Galahad" is a commentary on Mimi's ever-broken heart and the men that tried to pursue her after Richard's death.

Oh, the falcon was a pretty bird

Wandered as she flew

She danced around and pranced around

Wherever the warm winds blew

And the falcon was a pretty bird

Her voice was always still

But men with drums and men with guns

They taught her how to kill

— Richard and Mimi Farina

"Steel Rails" by Alison Krauss

Alison Maria Krauss: Most Awarded Female Singer of the Grammys

Alison Krauss performs as Alison Krauss and Union Station (AKUS), but as a solo bluegrass-country American singer-songwriter; she's a well-known name. She has won 27 Grammy awards (as of 2018), making her the most awarded female artist-singer of the Grammys.

She was born in Illinois and was celebrated locally for the many festivals she entered. She is known for her angelic voice, harmonies, and fiddle playing, and she names Dolly Parton as one of her major influences. Many liken Krauss to The Cox Family, Bill Monroe, and Del McCoury.

Steel rails, chasing sunshine round the bend

Winding through the trees, like a ribbon in the wind

I don't mind not knowing what lies down the track

Cause I'm looking out ahead, to keep my mind from turning back

"Wildwood Flower" Covered by Emmylou Harris

Young Emmylou Harris and Collaborations

Emmylou Harris is widely celebrated in the folk and country music scene. She cover's The Carter Family's "Wildwood Flower" which was also done by Johnny Cash. Emmylou is the winner of 14 Grammys and she's also been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

She's worked with numerous artists and musicians and studied the works of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Some of her noteworthy later works include Stumble Into Grace and Red Dirty Girl. She is an active member of PETA and does much philanthropy work including assisting at an animal shelter in Nashville.

I will twine, I will mingle my raven black hair

With the roses so red and the lilies so fair

And the myrtle so bright with it's emerald hue

The pale emanita and the hyssop so blue

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash Duet

Bob Dylan is one of the best lyricists and songwriters of all time. With his thoughtful lyrics and ability to emote thought, sentiment, nostalgia, and political concern, Dylan has written some of the most memorable songs of all time.

"Girl From the North Country" is beautifully recorded and remixed with Johnny Cash in some renditions. The balance of Dylan and Cash with their offset voices creates a level of depth that is not often found in typical pairings.

If you're travelin' in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

— Bob Dylan

"Little Satchel" by Tim and Debbie Yates

A Cover of The Wandering Ramblers Song "Little Satchel"

This tune played by Tim and Debbie Yates and Jordan Rice on mandolin is true nostalgia. The video above features Acoustic Heritage at the Lincoln Theatre in Marion, VA. The TV series, Song of the Mountains, features the traditional old-time song.

The song is light and playful, tells of the displeasure of the subjects' parents over blossoming love, sweet escapes, and carries the tune of everything old-time American.

Under my bed

You can touch our little satchel

On my head

Come lay your little hand

You will be

My own true lover

I will be your loving little man

"Tennessee Time" by Valerie June

Revisiting Tradition Through Voice and Style

Valerie June is an exceptional contemporary artist and was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Her voice is a gift of her raising. As a child, she attended both predominantly black and predominantly white churches. In interviews, she described the ways in which she adapted and understood the similarities and differences in worship styles and appreciated them both for what they offered when it came to traditional kinds of music.

Valerie June is not only refreshing in personal style and music, she's refreshed old-time elements. In her song "Working Woman Blues" she communicates the lifestyle of a hard-working woman who doesn't have time for the usual homemaking. Be sure to check her out! She has some amazingly haunting tunes like "Shotgun."

Running on Tennessee time

Running on Tennessee time

There's a tap on my window

There's a ring at my door

And I'll answer in Tennessee time

— Valerie June

"Eagle Song" by The Staves

Haunting Lyrics and the Sisterhood

The Staves are an English indie folk trio (three sisters) of contemporary times. All three sisters learned guitar from their father but also are fond of the ukulele as can be seen in other songs and videos they've produced. "Facing West" is quite popular as is their song "Mexico." They've been known to collaborate with Bon Iver.

Their songs are haunting—see the video above of their coast-side footage in the "Eagle Song." It starts out quite folkish and evolves into a ballad reminiscent of craft—eerie harmonies of sisters of three. Enjoy.

The eagle flew above us

Blankets wrapped around us

Lucky that she found us

Rooted to the ground

— The Staves

"Love at the Five and Dime" by Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith: Country, Folk, and Folkabilly

Nanci Griffith is the darling of folkabilly. She finds ways to interweave lyrics and memories to capture places preserved in time. She was born in Texas and received a grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1994. Her backing band is known as "The Blue Moon Orchestra"; it consists of Pat McInerney (percussion), Maura Kennedy (vocals, guitar), and Pete Kennedy (guitar, vocals).

Nanci Griffith has been backed by Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett. An interesting yet sad fact: She lost her high school boyfriend in a motorcycle crash on the night of her senior prom—this influenced many of her songs.

And they'd sing

Dance a little closer to me

Hey, dance a little closer now

Dance a little closer tonight

— Nanci Griffith

"Chelsea Morning" by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell: Folk, Pop, Rock, and Jazz

Joni Mitchell is a Canadian singer with 9 Grammy Awards, she was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Rolling Stones also listed her as one of the greatest songwriters of all time.

She is known for her floaty lyrics that surround heavy issues like politics, land protection, romance, mood, and dark psychology. She is also a painter. She's written her songs in over 50 tunings, and while most songs were first composed on piano, she is a celebrated guitarist with a diversity of techniques and styles.

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I knew

There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too

And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses

— Joni Mitchell

"Ciamara ní Mi" Performed by Peia

Peia Luzzi and Archival Songkeeping

Peia is an emerging musician rooted in traditional folk. The song "Ciamara ní mi" (Bòg An Lochan) above is described as a raucous medley and is performed in Scottish Gaelic. This style of song is of the genre "mouth music" which was celebrated at a time when musical instruments weren't made available and song and sound were discouraged.

Peia performs with numerous artists including performances like Peia and the Wild Honeys. She is termed an "archival songkeeper." Born in Oregon, she uncovered her love for ancient song in Europe, linking her to her ancestry and love for old Irish.

How can I make a tidy dance,

how can I dance a bony reel?

The pin has fallen out of my dress and set my dance astray!

Bonus: "The Lilac & the Apple" by Kate Wolf

Kate Wolf: A Folk Treasure

Kate Wolf is one of my all-time favorite folk singers. And while I have a great appreciation for old-time music and songs like "I Ain't Got No Sugar Baby Now" or Judy Collin's "Someday Soon" and Peter, Paul and Mary's "Blowing in the Wind" or Simon & Garfunkle's "Scarborough Fair," Kate Wolf is simply magic.

I was fortunate to drive to Goodyears Bar and see her gravesite. Keep in mind this is a town of 50 in the foothills of the Sierra Mountain Range. I met a guy there who manages the museum, and he told me the story of her song "The Lilac & the Apple Tree." Apparently, the apple tree is still there, and she used to sing about it over breakfast. Simply magical!

A Lilac bush and an Apple tree

Were standing in the woods

Out on the hill above the town

Where once a farmhouse stood

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Laynie H

What Are Your Favorite Folk Tunes?

Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on April 28, 2019:

Thank you for your feedback Sherry! I see you are close to her stomping grounds. She is and always will be a favorite singer of mine. I hope to attend the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival one day.

Sherry Hewins from Sierra Foothills, CA on April 28, 2019:

Thanks so much for including the amazing Kate Wolf in your list. A precious soul and sweet voice stilled too soon.