Here's a look at the best singer/songwriters, artists and bands in the history of American folk music. Although this site looks at folk music in a more comprehensive sense, including bluegrass and whatnot, I decided to focus this list on folksingers and folk-rock artists. I'll do another list that spotlights bluegrass. Including the greatest bluegrass artists of all time would mean making this list at least twice as long as it already is. So, without further ado...the top 50 folk artists of all time, in alphabetical order.
The Almanacs were really the first folk music supergroup, and spun off into rather successful careers for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Josh White, Burl Ives, and various other folks who made up the core of the group or who joined them on occasion. Seeger and Hays went on to form The Weavers (included later in this list).
2. Ani DiFranco
Ani DiFranco is probably the most prominent Gen-X folksinger. Since the release of her self-titled debut in 1990, DiFranco has built an excessively loyal fanbase around the world, as well as a rather succesful independent record label out of her hometown in Buffalo, NY. She's averaged about an album a year of her own work, and has managed to also slide in several collaborations and benefit albums, not to mention an endlessly rigorous tour schedule.
3. Ben Harper
It's still remarkable that Ben Harper hasn't blown up any bigger than he is. He's managed to maintain a sort of cult following for the past decade, bringing his soulful folk stylings to rather biting protest songs and incantations about justice and the human experience. Still, regardless of his level of popularity, through his haunting, intuitive songwriting skills, Harper has certainly earned his place among the best folk artists of all time.
4. Bob Dylan
What list of folk music greats would be complete without a nod to Mr. Bob Dylan? He almost doesn't warrant an explanation as to how and why he deserves to be on this list, but I'll give one, anyway. Dylan's songwriting has spanned every nook and cranny of Americana, from the blues to folk to rock and roll, and his influence has been felt through every strain of American music. From his early 60s topical tunes to his heartbreak songs of today, Dylan is easily one of the greatest American folk artists.
It's hard to imagine that we'd still be talking about American folk music had there never been a Carter Family. The music of the Carter Family helped inspire folks like Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" melody was taken from an old Carter Family tune. Johnny Cash grew up listening to them on the radio. It almost seems like every folk artist of note came up listening to the Carter Family and learning their songs. One part old school country, one part gospel spirituals, the Carter Family's influence on contemporary folk music is certainly felt.
6. Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam) was one of the most influential folk singer/songwriters of the 1970s. His peace-focused tunes melded aspects of classic pop with contemporary folk music, distinguishing him from his contemporaries. His song "Wild World" has frequently been covered by artists of various genres.
Old time banjo player Charlie Poole was one of the earliest stars of the old time scene back in the 1920s. As the frontman of the North Carolina Ramblers, Poole became an influence on the founding fathers of American bluegrass. Their tune "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" became a country-folk standard in the late '20s.
Dave Carter was inarguably one of the best songwriters the contemporary folk scene as known in some time. In his collaboration with Portland fiddle player Tracy Grammer, the duo managed to sing and play their way into the hearts of folk fans, even in the short time before Carters death in 2002. Their debut album was recorded in their kitchen, and went on to become a favorite among folk enthusiasts nationwide.
Dave Van Ronk was one of the most important figures in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. He was an activist and a songwriter, a Merchant Marine, and a former member of a barbershop quartet. But, it was his involvement in the scene that put him on the map. Literally. There's a street in the West Village of New York named after him.