The folk music genre spans a wide variety of artists. If you're new to these varied forms of Americana that include everything from bluegrass to alt-country, old timey fiddle tunes to folk-rock, this list is a great start. But, it's also a good primer for fans looking to expand their existing CD collection.
In 1952, filmmaker Harry Smith released a compilation of field recordings, country blues and folk songs from the 1920s and 30s that became an inspiration for budding folksingers and the movement that followed. The rather extensive Anthology of American Folk Music presented artists like The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Poole, and Clarence Ashley, among many, many others.
Contrary to popular belief, the folk music revival in America didn't start in the '50s or '60s, it began much earlier in the 20th century, as the folklorists hit the fields and started working to preserve traditional folk songs. Meanwhile, during the Great Depression, a group of likeminded activists and songwriters gathered in New York City and started reviving the songs of the working class, and writing working class songs of their own. The Almanac Singers included heavyweights like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others who went on to hugely influence the '60s folk revival. This album is an excellent introduction to their work.
Granted it's four CDs, but this is probably the most important group of songs in American Folk music. So many artists have been inspired and enlightened by Woody Guthrie's wealth of work. The remarkable thing is that these four CDs don't even begin to cover the hundreds of songs Woody wrote in his lifetime. But they're certainly his most influential and timeless classics.
If you're looking for a decent introduction to the traditional and contemporary bluegrass movement, you can't get much better than the Rounder Records library. This collection features some of the greatest players in the genre, from Hazel Dickens to Tony Trischka, Alison Krauss to J.D. Crowe and the New South. This two-disc set is a great introduction for bluegrass newbies, and an excellect addition to fans' collections.
If Bluegrass is your bag, this CD collection belongs on your mantle. It contains a lot of hard-to-come-by material from Bill Monroe's early days, as well as some of his greatest early hits with the Blue Grass Boys. These four CDs contain the songs that defined Bluegrass, and are pretty much responsible for the evolution of this genre.
Pete Seeger is one of the most important folkisngers and singer/songwriters in the history of contemporary folk music in America. His original songs—from "Waste Deep in the Big Muddy" to "Turn Turn Turn"—have been covered by so many artists, it's hard to count anymore. And, the songs he's found and revived ("We Shall Overcome," for example) have become definitive tunes in the struggle for peace and equality. This greatest hits collection includes many of Seeger's most notable songs, and serves as an excellent introduction to this font of great American folk music.
Phil Ochs put out a couple of really fantastic records, and his best songs are kind of sprawled over all of them. But I Ain't Marching Anymore (Elektra, 1965) has some real fabulous tunes like "Draft Dodger Rag" and "The Men Behind the Guns." Trust me it's tough to write topical songs that are both timely and timeless, but Phil mastered that art during his unfortunately somewhat short career.
Highway 61 Revisited is one of my personal favorite from the Dylan discography. It opens with one of Bob's greatest early folk-rock tunes—"Like a Rolling Stone"—and keeps on rolling all the way to "Desolation Row." It's one of the most poignant records released by someone who's still alive and making poignant records.