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Best Folk Music Artists of All Time

Who are the best folk singers?


11. Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris Live in Concert
photo: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
Emmylou Harris is often considered a country singer, but her roots really lie in contemporary folk. Certainly her early records were very folky. Emmylou has long been an advocate of social justice and has counted Joan Baez and Bob Dylan among her many influences. Certainly she's managed to influence an enormous crop of folksingers, including Gillian Welch and Janis Ian.

12. Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch
© Glenn Rose
Gillian Welch is definitely one of the most respected songwriters on the scene these days. Her songs have been used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and her frequent collaboration with David Rawlings is one of the most appreciated musical partnerships these days.

13. The Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead CD Cover
© Rhino Records
Though their roots began in the San Francisco Bay area bluegrass scene, the Grateful Dead soon became one of the most prolific, popular, successful folk-rock bands. Their manner of incorporating bluegrass and jazz-like solo jams has inspired countless jam bands since their inception.

14. Greg Brown

Greg Brown
© Larry McGahey
With his simple, folksy imagery and tunes inspired by his Midwest hometown, Greg Brown has become one of the most inimitable songwriters around these days. His own Red House Records has produced a number of successful artists like Eliza Gilkyson and others.

15. Guy Clark

Guy Clark
courtesy Planet Bluegrass
A contemporary and close friend of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark is best known and appreciated for his deeply narrative story-songs.

16. Holly Near

Holly Near
© Pat Hunt
Holly Near's staunch activism and feminist political protest songs have earned her a place among the greatest American folk singers of all time.

17. Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte
photo: Peter Kramer / Getty Images
First discovered as a calypso artist, Harry Belafonte became most popular for his "Banana Boat Song." He also became an active force in the Civil Rights movement of the '60s.

18. Ian & Sylvia

Ian & Sylvia Album Cover
© Vanguard
Ian & Sylvia were one of the most successful folk duos of the 1960s and '70s. They worked with fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, and also recorded several original and traditional folk songs.

19. James Taylor

James Taylor Album Cover
© Warner Bros.
James Taylor is often considered one of the most successful of the "sensitive singer/songwriters." Although he's not a traditionalist folksinger, his music blends the tenets of folk with a more mainstream folk-pop style.

20. Janis Ian

Janis Ian
© Beth Gwinn
Janis Ian was a different kind of teen queen, hitting the national scene at the age of 15 with a self-penned tune about an inter-racial relationship. She hasn't stopped pushing the envelope since, and is still releasing excellent records now, more than 40 years later.
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