Folk music has a vibrant history, featuring songwriters from all backgrounds. Many of these folk musicians are also activists and political influencers.
Some of these artists are renowned for their skillful lyricism. Others advocate for causes like world hunger and mental health awareness.
Jackson C. Frank
Jackson Carey Frank was 11 when the furnace at his school exploded, taking 15 of his classmates and leaving him with severe burns covering more than half his body. This trauma left him mentally and physically disabled for the remainder of his life; music provided him with solace.
Frank became a superstar singer-songwriter when he relocated to England in 1965, becoming popular among British folk music. His debut album was produced by Paul Simon and his songs would inspire generations of future British folk musicians.
His songs are earnest yet veiled, drawn from a place of deep pain yet with an eerie resonance that can be linked back to the tragic events in his childhood. Although his sole release – Jackson C Frank in 1965 – barely sold, it still managed to capture the attention of other artists such as Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and Sandy Denny.
Though he never managed to make another studio record, Frank did manage to survive long enough for rescue from the streets of New York and relocation to Woodstock. His return led to the release of his self-titled album in 1996 as well as Blues Run The Game: an anthology collecting all his later demos.
Ramblin’ Jack is an iconic folk music artist with the unique ability to craft his own style. His voice, described by him as an Irish tenor, is versatile and unselfconscious; it can range from a guttural moan to screechy falsetto.
He is renowned for his skillful renditions of traditional songs. With a diverse range of influences, he’s constantly discovering new sounds.
His early musical influence was Woody Guthrie, whom he met in 1951 and began studying with. Over the course of six years that they toured together, Woody taught Jack the intricacies of his songs and style.
Ramblin’ Jack is now celebrated for his unique style and as an inspiration to countless young folk musicians. As part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, he earned himself a Grammy award in 1995 for his album South Coast.
Richard Shindell is an American folk singer based in the Hudson Valley of New York State and Buenos Aires, Argentina. His songs depict vivid images and tell captivating tales through vivid imagery.
He has a knack for crafting songs about people from an insider’s perspective, whether it’s an INS officer and illegal immigrant in “Fishing,” a World War II soldier in “Sparrows Point” or a Confederate drummerboy in “Arrowhead.”
His music is intricate, emotive and beautiful, featuring captivating singing and melodic guitar playing. He has amassed a devoted following – including Joan Baez who is an admirer and has recorded several of his songs.
Shindell has maintained his writing talent despite an intense touring schedule, producing multiple albums that have all been successful beyond expectations.
Recently released “Careless,” by Joan Baez, is her best album in years and displays her remarkable artistry. With deep empathy for humanity and an expert command of the guitar, Joan’s songs offer an intense collection of poignant reworked versions of classic songs like “Reunion Hill” (written specifically for Joan Baez to sing) and “Beyond the Iron Gate.”
Michael David Fuller, better known by his stage name Blaze Foley, was born on December 18, 1949 in Malvern, Arkansas and passed away in 1989.
Foley is an accomplished songwriter who began his career with the Fuller Family, a West Texas gospel group. His songs have been recorded by numerous artists such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and John Prine.
He earned the nickname “Duct Tape Messiah” due to his affinity for using duct tape to bind together all his belongings. At one point, he even donned a suit made out of the stuff!
His music had a unique, sometimes eerie quality to it. His songs often challenged social norms and institutions, making him an outcast who wasn’t easily fooled.
On this album, Jubal Clark’s hauntingly beautiful “Blaze Ablaze” and Townes Van Zandt’s hilarious “Wouldn’t That Be Nice” are performed by artists who knew him well or were inspired by his life. Kimmie Rhodes sings a lyrical cut of Merle-Willie’s single while Calvin Russell performs “Small Town Hero.”
Following his passing in 1989, many of the tracks included on this collection were written as tributes to him. Lucinda Williams’ poignant “Drunken Angel” and Van Zandt’s bluesy, humorous tune “Blaze’s Blues” stand among them.
Townes Van Zandt
Born into a wealthy oil-wealthy family in Fort Worth, Texas to an oil-wealthy aristocratic family, Townes Van Zandt spent his early career traveling across America before settling down in Nashville and becoming an influential songwriter.
His songs, with influences ranging from folk music and blues music to poetry and prose, would inspire many artists. Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard all cited him as an influence.
Throughout his career, he performed to small audiences in dive bars. He battled substance abuse issues and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a psychiatric professional.
He had also had issues with his record labels. He considered himself to be a “cult figure.”
Van Zandt released the acoustic song, “To Live Is To Fly,” in 1971. This mellow piece is accompanied by light drums and piano as Van Zandt sings about life’s ups and downs.
Van Zandt wrote several songs that became beloved among other folk musicians. In 1983, Emmylou Harris covered it and made it a huge success; shortly thereafter Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard also covered the tune.
Emmylou Harris was born in Birmingham, Alabama on April 2, 1947 and is a renowned folk singer-songwriter. With many albums released under her belt, Emmylou is one of today’s most acclaimed folk music names.
She is renowned for her impressive collaborative relationships with artists of various genres. She’s collaborated with notable names like Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Daniel Lanois, Neil Young and Gram Parsons to name a few.
Her major label debut album, Pieces of the Sky (1975), was an enormous success and earned her many accolades. Since then she has recorded several other albums such as Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, Blue Kentucky Girl, and Beneath Still Waters.
In 1972, she began collaborating with Gram Parsons – her mentor and idol – on two albums, GP and Grievous Angel, before Parson tragically passed away from an overdose of alcohol and drugs in 1974. Their collaboration provided the impetus for her solo career which would continue until his passing at age 53 in 1974.
Gillian Welch’s musical influences stem from bluegrass and early country music, particularly the Stanley Brothers, Delmore Brothers and Carter Family. She was drawn to their honesty and rawness in their music and wanted to recreate that for herself.
She studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she met David Rawlings – her life partner and musical collaborator. After graduation, they relocated to Nashville and began performing as a duo. Their minimalist blends of folk, traditional country, and bluegrass music caught producer T Bone Burnett’s attention.
Her debut album Revival (1996) was a critical and commercial success, while Hell among the Yearlings (1998) expanded on her love for traditional fiddle tunes with a more somber approach to folk traditions.
Her 2001 album Time (the Revelator) explored the darker side of American history. Its songs traced lines forward and backward in time, connecting historical events with personal experiences. For instance, ‘April the 14th Part 1’ connects Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the sinking of Titanic, and a dust storm in 1935.
Janis Ian, whose folk music name is a play on her last name, is an inspiring writer whose lyrics often challenge the status quo. Her iconic 1966 hit single, “Society’s Child,” highlighted racial prejudice with poignancy.
At the age of twelve, she wrote her first song, “Hair of Spun Gold,” which was published in Broadside magazine. At fifteen, she released her self-titled debut album.
The debut single from her album, “Society’s Child,” a reflection on interracial romance written while waiting to meet her guidance counselor, was initially banned by radio stations due to its contentious themes. However, Leonard Bernstein featured the track on his TV special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution and quickly went viral.
Her next major hit, “At Seventeen,” a poignant commentary on teenage cruelty, the illusion of success and teenage angst, was released in 1975 and quickly became a staple of her live shows. It also won her the 1975 Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female, beating Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John to it.