Great Folk Music Duos

From Simon & Garfunkel to Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Second to singer-songwriters, duos and collaborations have produced some of the greatest folk music in American history. One creative mind can have a lasting effect. But two minds working together can make something magical that seems to last forever. This list of some of the great duos in American folk music history include some duos whose collaborations have lasted years and others whose work has just spanned a couple of projects. From classic collaborators like Simon & Garfunkel to newer-comers like Shovels and Rope, and beyond. 

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Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston

Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.

Woody and Cisco weren't just musical collaborators, they were also great friends and traveling companions. Woody collaborated with a number of other folk singers during his lifetime, but for some reason, his collaborations with Houston have been more greatly preserved. Houston's sweet harmonies blended perfectly with Guthrie's Okie twang, and the personalities of the two men complemented each other in a way that helped the songs they sang together come across as timeless classic masterpieces.

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Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger

Almanac Singers - Which Side Are You On?
Almanac Singers - Which Side Are You On?. © Rev-Ola

As two members of the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger created some timeless, unforgettable folk music. The Alamanac Singers, and more specifically Seeger and Guthrie, have stood up as one of the most ground-breaking groups in the history of American folk music. With a strong social conscience and catchy, sing-along-able folk songs, the musical marriage of Seeger & Guthrie helped to inspire and influence many other folk artists.

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Bob Dylan & Joan Baez

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. © National Archive/Getty Images

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez would have enjoyed extreme popularity any way you sliced it, but in the early 1960s, the two groundbreakers teamed up for several folk festival appearances and tours. Each time they took the stage together, the audience could do nothing but sit in awe. Between Bob's gut-punching lyrics and Joan's sweet, clear soprano, Dylan & Baez seemed like a match made in heaven.

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Simon & Garfunkel

Simon & Garfunkel. © Columbia Records

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met while they were still in high school, and began performing as a duo under the pseudonym Tom & Jerry. Their first hit in 1957 was a song called, "Hey Schoolgirl." Seven years later, the duo scored a record contract with Columbia records, who renamed them Simon & Garfunkel. Together, they released a handful of unforgettably influential albums, including their classic, Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970).

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The Indigo Girls

Indigo Girls - Amy Ray and Emily Saliers
Indigo Girls - Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. photo: Neilson Barnard

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met while they were in elementary school, and by the time they had recorded their first demo in Amy's basement in 1981, they had developed a small following in their hometown of Decatur, GA. It was 1989, however, when the duo released their song, "Closer to Fine," that the Indigo Girls had solidified their place in folk-pop history. Their lush, contrapuntal harmonies are their greatest asset and have distinguished them from their predecessors.

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Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. promo photo

Gillian Welch grew up playing bluegrass music in Los Angeles; but when she moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, she met guitarist David Rawlings, whom she began dating. In 1992, the duo moved to Nashville, where they began turning heads with their collaborative efforts. Welch's honest songs, inspired by gospel, bluegrass, and old-time rock and roll, together with Rawlings' incredibly dexterous guitar skills have made them one of the best contemporary folk duos around.

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Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer

Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer. promo photo

Shortly after Tracy Grammer moved to Portland, Oregon, she ran into songwriter/guitarist Dave Carter at a songwriters' showcase. By early 1998, they had developed a strong and beautiful musical relationship. They recorded their first album When I Go in Grammer's kitchen and were signed to Signature Sounds two years later. After Carter's death in 2002 from a heart attack, Grammer continued to tour the country on her own, paying tribute to Carter and his incredible music.

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Ani DiFranco & Utah Phillips

Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips. courtesy Righteous Babe Records

When Ani DiFranco joined together with Utah Phillips for the first time in 1996, she took years of Phillips' tapes of his live performances and set his stories to her music. The result was an album of timeless, poignant stories and poems that brought DiFranco's younger generation of fans together with Phillips' more traditional roots. The pair teamed up again in 1999 when the Ani DiFranco Band backed Phillips up for a live album called Fellow Workers (Righteous Babe).

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Shovels and Rope

Shovels + Rope
Shovels + Rope. promo photo

Shovels + Rope are a husband-and-wife duo from Charleston, SC, who have been dazzling the folk and Americana music scene for the past couple of years with their stripped-down guitar-and-drums approach to their original songs. Infused with deep Southern soul and wailing punk rock energy, the duo has made a couple of good recordings, but their live set is truly where the fire is. 

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Milk Carton Kids

Milk Carton Kids - Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale
Milk Carton Kids - Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale. courtesy Crash Avenue

The Milk Carton Kids showed up on the national folk circuit in a very quiet, unassuming way, which was appropriate considering their music. At first, they were giving it all away for free on their website. Then they signed a contract with Anti- Records and wound up headlining tours, wowing fans at festivals like Newport, and so on. They sound like a hybrid of Simon & Garfunkel and Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and they're bringing basic stripped-down songwriting to a whole new generation.