The Songs That Inspired and Defined the '60s Folk Movement

Here are some of the songs that inspired or defined the ‘60s folk revival:

He’s in the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing)” by Memphis Minnie:

The teenage runaway started as a street performer in Memphis and went on to become a towering figure in folk blues, including this homage to the “Brown Bomber,” heavyweight boxing champ and African-American hero Joe Louis. It’s included on Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

“Country Blues” by Dock Boggs:

Another rediscovery brought about by Harry Smith’s “Anthology,” Boggs wrote songs that cut to the bone, including this one soaked in corn whiskey and fatalism.

“Judgement” by Rev. Sister Mary Nelson:

The Pentecostal Church preacher roars at the devil in this unaccompanied vocal trio performance from the Smith anthology.

“Way Down the Old Plank Road” by Uncle Dave Macon, Sam McGee:

Of all the dynamic performances on Smith’s folk anthology, this one may be the most unhinged. Spurred by furious clog dancing, banjo and guitar, Macon assumes the voice of a wagoneer driving his horses with maniacal glee. “Kill yo’ self!” he hollers at his charges, trying to keep a few paces ahead of the music that surges behind him.

“San Francisco Bay Blues” by Jesse Fuller:

The singer and one-man band — kazoo solo alert! — didn’t record his first album until he was 62, but his compositions have been covered by countless artists, including Dylan.

“This Little Light of Mine” by Odetta:

The singer, actress and activist put her stamp on the Civil Rights Movement with 200 songs, including her interpretation of this gospel perennial.

“No Depression in Heaven” by The New Lost City Ramblers:

The Carter Family classic was given new life in 1959 by this contemporary string band, which in turn inspired Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album, “No Depression.”

“Goodnight Irene” by The Weavers:

The quartet, which included Pete Seeger, recorded this Lead Belly song in the ‘50s and turned it into a national hit.

“There But for Fortune” by Joan Baez:

Even though it belonged to a teenager, the singer’s transcendent voice was already the signature sound of the early ‘60s folk revival. Baez helped popularize countless songs by her peers, including Dylan, and this track by Phil Ochs.

“Maid of Constant Sorrow” by Judy Collins:

The somber, stately title track from the singer’s 1961 debut announced the arrival of another future folk icon.

“He Was a Friend of Mine” by Dave Van Ronk:

Rough of voice and long on passion, “the Mayor of MacDougal Street” made every song his own, including this traditional that became a folk-rock staple in the ‘60s.

“Walk Right In” by The Rooftop Singers:

The trio’s distinctive 12-string-guitar arrangement turned the old jug-band tune into a No. 1 pop hit in 1963.

“I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” by Tom Paxton:

Paxton’s 1964 debut album included one of his most enduring songs, which encapsulated the restless spirit of the folk era.

“You Gotta Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell:

Veteran blues singers revived their careers during the folk era, their “authenticity” resonating with young audiences hungry for something deeper than the surface pleasures of pop music. McDowell fit the bill with his unvarnished blues, which attracted acolytes such as the Rolling Stones, who covered this song on their 1971 “Sticky Fingers” album.

“Day After Day” by Joni Mitchell:

This recently released demo marks the legendary artist’s first recording, in 1965, presaging her extraordinary career.

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs:

The Texas-born singer, a self-described “singing journalist,” arrived in New York soon after Dylan, and established a reputation for writing earnestly topical songs.

“Coffee Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt:

The veteran blues singer’s wit and wisdom inspired the young folkies, including the Lovin’ Spoonful, who named their band after a lyrical phrase in this song.

“Early Morning Rain” by Gordon Lightfoot:

A key track from the Canadian songwriter’s 1966 debut. By that point it had already appeared on hit albums by Judy Collins, Ian & Syliva and Peter, Paul & Mary.

“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” by Pete Seeger:

The godfather of the ‘60s folk movement was still kicking up dust in 1967 when he wrote this anti-war song. When Seeger sang it during a taping for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” that year, the network censored the performance. The brothers later persuaded the network to relent, and brought back the singer to perform the song on the show in 1968.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program ( In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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