Top 10 Famous Folk Singers: A Celebration of Musical Excellence

Byvu lita

Dec 17, 2023

What is folk music? It’s actually quite a tricky question to answer – that’s why writers and academics have spent centuries debating it. That said, we’re all aware of the debt that classical music owes to folk. And we all know a good folk singer when we hear one. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the best folk singers ever.

The best folk singers: our top ten

Leonard Cohen

Even if you just know ‘Hallelujah’, you know Leonard Cohen. The poet-novelist-singer-songwriter poured his soul into everything: his beautiful melodies, his haunting lyrics, his many relationships, his Jewish faith.

As a youngster, growing up in an orthodox Jewish family in Montreal, Cohen regularly involved himself in extracurricular activities. He got involved on the yearbook staff, in the arts and current events clubs, in his school’s theatre programme. He even served as president of the Students’ Council.

But music occupied a special place in his affections. That was thanks to his mother, who would sing songs around the house. ‘I know that those changes, those melodies, touched me very much,’”’ he later reminisced. “She would sing with us when I took my guitar to a restaurant with some friends; my mother would come, and we’d often sing all night.”

God, love, loss, death and longing

He came to his singing-songwriting career relatively late – in his mid-thirties, after struggling to make a living as a novelist and poet. But it was quick to take off, thanks to the profoundly haunting yet simple way he dealt with the most fundamental aspects of life: sex, God, love, loss, death and longing. It’s a quality that turned him into an icon, with many hailing him as a literary and musical genius.

Yet Cohen himself always remained remarkably matter of fact about his creative process. ‘I have no idea what I am doing,’ he once said in an interview with the New Yorker. ‘It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.’


Bob Dylan

Hailed by some as the Shakespeare of his generation, this Nobel-prize-winning singer-songwriter has always had a way of capturing the zeitgeist like few others before or after him. Even the Beatles learnt from him. Paul McCartney once declared: ‘He showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.’ And yet his music is timeless, often reflecting on universal themes and refracting them through poetry and music of immaculate craftsmanship.

Growing up in a small, close-knit Jewish community in Minnesota, Bob Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman as he was then known) grew up on a musical diet of blues, country and rock and roll. He formed several bands in high school, but it was when – as a student at the University of Minnesota – his focus on rock and roll gave way to American folk music, that he found his groove, as he explained in a 1985 interview:

‘The thing about rock’n’roll is that for me anyway it wasn’t enough … There were great catchphrases and driving pulse rhythms. But the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.’

All of which, and more, Dylan poured into his own songs. Now, aged 82, he continues to tour and remains a sight to behold in live performance.


Woody Guthrie

Perhaps the most significant folk artist in US history, Woody Guthrie inspired generations of singers (not least Bob Dylan himself) thanks to his artistry and political activism.

Brought up in Oklahoma, Guthrie learnt how to do life, and music, the hard way. His mother, an early musical influence, suffered from Huntingdon’s – a disease that would later claim Guthrie too – and was institutionalised when he was still a child.

Aged 14, and left to fend for himself while his father worked in Texas to repay his debts, Guthrie turned to busking in the streets for food or money, developing his skills as a musician. He married at 19 and fathered three children. But, with the arrival of the dust storms of the Dust Bowl period, he had to leave them to seek employment elsewhere. This was how he wound up in California, literally singing for his supper with his guitar and harmonica.

The experience left a deep impression, in the form of a strong social conscience. It also paved the way for a lot of good songs. His iconic 1940s song ‘This Land is Your Land’ is commonly considered to be the USA’s alternative national anthem, and much of his work is focused on themes of American socialism and anti-fascism. Bob Dylan made a great effort to seek out his idol, and visited him in hospital during his final years. He would later say of Guthrie’s music, ‘The songs themselves were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.’


Joni Mitchell

Celebrating her 80th birthday this year, Joni Mitchell is one of the most venerated folk singers, thanks to the individualism of her music. The Canadian-American singer’s songs, frequently confessional in style, have resonated with millions, transcending time, gender and genre. You couldn’t categorise her music even if you wanted to: such is the originality of her style. ‘When I play the guitar,’ she once explained, “I hear it as an orchestra: the top three strings being the horn section, the bottom three being celloviola, and double bass — the bass being indicated but not rooted.’

Part of that unconventionality comes down to her earliest experiences: at eight she contracted polio, leaving her left hand weakened. In order to play the guitar, she had to adapt her tunings. This experience lent her a deeper, more playful relationship with her instrument than many a guitarist.

That relationship saw her through several significant life events – not least the trauma of giving up a newborn daughter for adoption. And it was a relationship that evolved over time, increasingly embracing elements of jazz and pop.

But Mitchell has not lost sight of her folk beginnings. In a 2020 interview with The Guardian Mitchell said: ‘For so long I rebelled against the term. “I was never a folk singer.” It would piss me off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened, and – it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realisation… Oh God! I was a folk singer!’


Laura Marling

Ranking amongst the finest young British folk singers, Laura Marling is has won legions of admirers for her gifts as a musical storyteller.

Born to a music teacher mother and a baronet father who ran a recording studio, Marling started learning the guitar at an early age. Naturally introverted, she had some difficult periods at school. She quit before her AS-levels to embark on a musician’s life in London – with her parents’ approval.

The result was an ethereal new voice. There are debts to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but there’s also something totally distinctive. Reserved and enigmatic, Marling draws the listener in with her quietly poetic brand of music making, often leaving listeners’ to guess at its emotional significance. ‘There’s a level of conscious removal,’ she once told The Guardian, when describing her music. ‘I don’t see a time where I’m ever going to sit and sing with my heart on my sleeve.’


More best folk singers

Lal Waterson

Who knows what else this English folk singer might have achieved, had she not died suddenly, aged 55, of cancer diagnosed only ten days before.

As it is, she produced a significant body of songs. Stark but mesmerising, they often focused on the bleaker side of life.

An orphan brought up by her grandmother of part Gypsy descent, Waterson grew up singing with her siblings. Together they opened their own folk club in a pub in their native city of Hull. By the mid 1960s they had developed their own unaccompanied style singing harmony style re-workings of traditional English songs.

Later, when Waterson branched off on her own, she would draw on influences ranging from jazz and ragtime. But that facility with harmony, and her ability to take it in unexpected directions, stood her in good stead throughout her relatively short life, contributing to a musical voice that was as original as it was powerful.

Elizabeth Cotten

For all that she wrote some of America’s most sophisticated folk songs while still a young girl, the self-taught African-American guitarist Elizabeth Cotten had to wait more than sixty years to get the acclaim she deserved.

Born in 1893, the youngest of five children, Cotten taught herself the guitar. Because she was left-handed she played it upside down, plucking the melody line with her thumb. This technique came to be known as ‘Cotten picking’.  At nine she was forced to quit school and work as a domestic help. At 13, she got a live in job as  a maid. All the while, though, she continued to write her own songs, with ‘Freight Train’ in particular, becoming hugely popular in the US.

Not that anybody knew she had written it: for a long time the song was miscredited. And it was only decades later, with advocacy from the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and her family, for whom Cotten worked as a housekeeper, that she was recognised for it.

It was while working for the Seegers in her sixties, that she rediscovered her guitar. The instrument had lain dormant for 40 years.  Relearning to play it, Cotten started performing publicly and recording. She thus played a big part in the burgeoning folk revival of the 1960s. She died in 1987, aged 94.


Luke Kelly

One of Ireland’s most important cultural icons, Luke Kelly is best remembered as the man who knew how to sing his heart out, and to move even the steeliest listeners to tears.

Born in 1940 to a working class family near the Five Lamps area of Dublin, he grew up in poverty. His family shared communal taps and toilets with eight other families. He left school early, going on to take on a series of menial jobs, while learning the banjo.

Perhaps it was those early experiences that left him with a lifelong sympathy for the sufferings of others. It certainly informed a lot of his material, which focused on the plight of the worker in what he saw as a corrupt capitalist system.

As part of the band the Dubliners, he enjoyed huge success, releasing a steady stream of Irish classics such as the ‘The Wild Rover’, ‘The Monto’, ‘Whiskey in the Jar‘, and ‘Seven Drunken Nights’.

But it was all too short-lived. He died in 1984, aged only 44, of a brain tumour. Allegedly on the day of his funeral one mourner declared that if Kelly had any idea of how much he was loved, he would never have died.


Siân James

Siân James came from a line of singers who accompanied themselves on the harp – a line that she has done a fine job of continuing.

Brought up in a Welsh speaking family in the village of Llanerfyl in Powys, she started competing at age three in the local Esteddfodau, going on, later, to pick up the piano, violin and harp.

Later she sang with a folk-rock band. Now she is one of Wales’s finest, most adventurous multi-instrumentalists – someone who is able to explore the worlds of classical and classical crossover music while always remaining emotionally authentic.

As well as being one of the best folk singers in the pantheon Siân is also an actor, with various TV credits to her name.


Ian Campbell

This Scottish singer took a labyrinthine route through life. Born in Aberdeen – the son of a trade union leader – he moved as a teenager to Birmingham, where he worked for several years as an engraver in the city’s jewellery quarter. In the mid-1950s he and his younger sister Lorna formed the Clarion Skiffle Group. They later became the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

Together they toured nationally and internationally, giving performances at venues including the Royal Albert Hall in London. Their songs, often political in subject matter, were loved as much for their haunting melodies as they were for their poignant lyrics. One number in particular, ‘The Old Man’s Tale’, stands out for its last lines: ‘When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry/ I’m not sure how to change things, but by Christ we’ll have to try.’

The group split in 1978, following which Campbell did a degree in theatre studies at Warwick University. For a time he worked as a television producer and presenter, before eventually returning to full time singer. He never reclaimed the success of his early years. When he died in 2012, he was no longer a household name. For all that, he remains one of the most important singers of the British folk revival of the twentieth century, who had a lasting influence on generations of folk singers.

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