Folk Rock 101

All about folk-rock music history, artists, albums, and influences

Singer-Songwriter duo Simon & Garfunkel performing outside at a concert in Dublin

Eddie Mallin/Wikimedia Commons/CC 2.0

Bob Dylan can be credited for pushing folk music forward into the rock world when he went electric at a folk festival (unheard-of at the time). The 1970s were the real advent of Folk Rock artists like The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Young. More recently, folks like Ryan Adams, the Head and the Heart, Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, and other similarly minded artists are pitching in their energy to keep the folk-rock aesthetic alive and well.

Folk-Rock Instruments of Choice

Like with singer-songwriters, folk-rockers tend to center their songs around an acoustic guitar. Generally, they also feature a full rock band, which includes electric guitar, electric bass, and drums. Some bands also incorporate bluegrass instruments like fiddle, banjo, and mandolin into their line-up, while others use more traditional blues instruments like harmonica and lap steel. In recent years, bands picking up the folk-rock tradition have developed the genre into something more widely referred to as "indie folk". This new torch-bearer of the folk-rock tradition includes bands like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, who make radio-friendly mainstream rock music using folk instruments and informed by the story-telling tradition inherent in traditional folk music. While traditionalist folkies bristle at the notion these bands are at all related to folk music, the truth is they're carrying on the folk-rock aesthetic first laid down by artists and bands like Bob Dylan, the Band, the Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Recommended Classic Folk-Rock Albums

Bob Dylan - (Columbia, 1966)
The Byrds - (Columbia/Legacy 1965)
Paul Simon - (Warner Bros., 1987)

Background Info on Folk-Rock

Folk Rock was born in the 1960s when artists like Bob Dylan & the Band, and the Byrds - undoubtedly two of the biggest frontrunners of the evolution of the genre - began to respond to the British Invasion of creative rock bands like The Beatles and The Who, using their folk influences. These young intellectuals and politically savvy songwriters had grown up influenced by the folk singers of the 1930s and ‘40s like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

It could be argued that Bob Dylan created folk rock when he pulled out his electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, offending folk music’s staunchest traditionalists. Later, bands such as The Mamas & The Papas, Peter Paul & Mary, The Turtles, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young would help the folk rock movement along even further, having been influenced by the likes of Dylan and British singer/songwriter Donovan.

The 1970s saw the real advent of folk-rock artists like The Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and Neil Young. More recently, folks like Dan Bern, Ryan Adams, and Hammel on Trial are keeping the folk-rock scene thriving.