Famous American Folk Music You Should Know

Folk music has been a part of American culture for centuries, and it’s still going strong today. If you’re looking to add some famous American folk songs to your repertoire, here are some you should definitely check out.

Origins of American Folk Music

The American folk-music revival began during the 1940s and culminated in the mid-1960s. Its roots were in the British folk-music revival and the American labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American folk-music revival brought traditional folk music and folk musicians to national prominence.

Work Songs

During the era of American slavery, work songs were used as a way for slaves to communicate with each other while they were working. These songs often had coded messages that could be used to coordinate escape plans or share information about the conditions of different plantations. Work songs were also used as a form of protests against the horrific treatment that slaves received. Some of the most famous work songs include “John Henry” and “Pick a Bale of Cotton.”


American ballads are narrative folksongs – simply put, they are songs that tell stories. These narratives can be based on historical events, legends, or love stories, and often reflect the spirit and values of the American people. Some of the most famous American ballads were passed down orally, while others were written by popular songwriters and poets. Below are three well-known examples of American ballads.

“Barbara Allen” is a traditional Scottish ballad that made its way to America in the 18th century. It tells the story of a young woman who dies of a broken heart after her true love marries another. The song was adapted by many different artists over the years, including folk icon Woody Guthrie.

“The House of the Rising Sun” is a folk song that originates from the United States. It tells the story of a young man who is sent to prison after leading a life of crime. The song became popular during the folk revival of the 1960s, and has been covered by many different artists, including Bob Dylan and The Animals.

“Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” is an American ballad that dates back to the Civil War era. It tells the story of a woman who is left heartbroken after her lover goes off to war and does not return. The song was adapted from a Scottish ballad, and has been covered by many artists over the years, including Joan Baez and Natalie Merchant.


Spirituals are a type of religious folk song that originated in the southern United States. Spirituals were originally created by slaves who were forced to convert to Christianity. These songs were often used as a way to express the slaves’ emotions and thoughts about their situation. Spirituals typically have a call and response structure, with the leader singing a line and the rest of the group responding.

Some of the most famous spirituals include “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “Amazing Grace.” These songs have been performed by a variety of artists, including Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

Famous American Folk Songs

Folk music has been a part of American culture since the early 1600s. Folk songs are typically about the everyday life of the people who created them and often Tell stories about love, loss, work, and play. Many of the most famous American folk songs have been passed down from generation to generation and are still sung today. Here are a few of the most famous American folk songs you should know.

“The Ballad of John Henry”

“The Ballad of John Henry” is a folk song telling the story of the eponymous American folk hero. Though the song has been adapted numerous times and has been covered by many artists, it is most associated with the version recorded by Josh White in 1947.

According to the song, John Henry was a “steel drivin’ man” who worked on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. He was pitted against a steam drill in a contest to see which could lay more track in a day, and though he won, the effort proved too much for his heart and he died soon afterwards.

Despite its tragic ending, “The Ballad of John Henry” has become an American folk classic, celebrated for its depiction of a working-class hero who dies doing what he loves. It remains one of Josh White’s best-known recordings and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

“The House of the Rising Sun”

“The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional folk song, sometimes called “Rising Sun Blues”. It tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans; many versions also include mention of some form of vice such as gambling. The most famous version was recorded by George Huner in 1934, but many artists have covered the song in subsequent years, including Bob Dylan, Muse, and The Animals.


“Shenandoah” is a traditional American folk song of unknown origin, dating to the early 19th century. The song’s lyrics refer to the Shenandoah River, which flows through the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. It has been recorded by many artists and has become a popular standard.

The earliest known version of “Shenandoah” was published in 1883 as part of Colonel Richard Henry Dorr’s collection Songs and Ballads of theOhio Valley. Dorr noted that the song was “sung by an old man named John Bowman, who accompanied himself on the violin.” Other early versions of the song were collected by musicologist Charles Seeger in 1908 and 1909 from singers in Kentucky and Virginia.

The melody of “Shenandoah” is thought to be derived from the Irish ballad “The Banks of Inishfree”, which was brought to America by Irish immigrants in the 18th or 19th century. The tune is also similar to that of the English ballad “Scarborough Fair”.

The lyrics of “Shenandoah” are written from the perspective of a man who is separated from his love, who is possibly on board a ship bound for Shenandoah Valley. The lyrics express yearning for reunion and hope for a safe return.

There are many variations of “Shenandoah”, with some versions including additional verses or changing the order of the existing verses. One common variation is known as “Beautiful Dreamer”, which adds a final verse about dreaming of one’s loved ones.

“Shenandoah” has been recorded by many artists over the years, including Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Neil Young, and Emmylou Harris. It has also been used in various films and television shows, such as Once Upon a Time in America and Grey’s Anatomy.

Contemporary American Folk Music

Folk music encompasses a wide range of styles, from traditional songs that have been passed down for generations to more modern, contemporary folk songs. American folk music is no exception. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most famous American folk songs that you should know.

“The Wanderer” by Odetta

“The Wanderer” is a song written by American folk singer Odetta. It was first released on her album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues in 1956. The song became one of her signature tunes and was later covered by many other artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger.

Odetta’s rendition of “The Wanderer” is a slow, mournful ballad that tells the story of a homeless woman wandering the streets of New Orleans. The woman is searching for her lost love, but she knows that he is gone forever. Despite her sorrow, she remains hopeful that she will find him again someday.

The song was recorded in Odetta’s typical style of finger-picked guitar and soulful vocals. It has been praised for its simple beauty and searing honesty. Time magazine included the song in their list of “100 Greatest Songs of All Time,” and it has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is one of the most famous and influential American folk songs of the 20th century. Dylan wrote the song in 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement, and it quickly became an anthem for the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s. The song features Dylan’s signature literate, poetic lyrics and his characteristic fingerpicked guitar style. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” has been covered by many artists over the years, including Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen.

“We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger

“We Shall Overcome” is a song that has been associated with the American Civil Rights Movement. The song was first published in 1947 by Zilphia Horton, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with the title “We Will Overcome”. It rapidly became a anthem of the civil rights movement after being adapted and sung by Pete Seeger in 1948. According to Guy and Candie Carawan, who introduced the song at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1960:

The original version of “We Shall Overcome” was a gospel song sung by tobacco workers led by Rev. C. T. Vivian during a meeting break at a North Carolina factory in 1945. In 1946, Zilphia Horton, music director at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, heard Lucille Simmons singing the song at a union meeting and taught it to others there.

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