Most Influential Folk Music Artists

A look at some of the most important American folk music artists

Throughout the course of American folk music history, there have been literally thousands of artists who have traversed the highways bringing their original folk songs and adaptations of traditional tunes to every city and town along the way. These have included news reporting troubadours, topical political protest singers, labor unionists, and starry-eyed love song singers, as well. From Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and far beyond that, the major players in the popularization of American folk music have included all styles and walks of life.

Here's a look at some of the most influential artists who have ever tried their hand at American folk music, bluegrass, Americana, and other areas of American roots music.

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Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie, 1943
New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller/Library of Congress/Public Domain

The original folk singer/songwriter extraordinaire, Woody Guthrie set the precedent for the breadth of issues and subjects about which an American folk singer could sing. His original tunes often put to work traditional melodies, as well as melodies to songs that were popular at the time. His lyrics encapsulated all the important issues of his time, and of America in general, in plain and simple language that put words to what so many people were thinking and feeling.

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Bob Dylan

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover
(c) Sony Records

Bob Dylan innovated the modern music world by integrating old folk, blues, and other forms of Americana into songs that were both timely and timeless. He was the darling of the folk revivalists in the early 1960s; but, after using an electric guitar in his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, his reputation came under fire from the folkies. It was a small matter, though – Dylan has had a 30-year career that includes music, books, movies, and a radio show.

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Joni Mitchell

The Canadian chanteuse probably never meant to be as popular as she eventually became. Originally a painter and poet, Mitchell forged an incredible career for herself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her hauntingly sweet melodies and inimitable soprano inspired numerous women to enter the folk singer/songwriter community and continues to do so today. Her influence is apparent in the work of Dar Williams and Kris Delmhorst, among many others.

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Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe spearheaded the Bluegrass movement of the 1950s. Along with his Blue Grass Boys, he set a precedent for all bluegrassers. He integrated some aesthetics of country-western with vocal harmonies, bluegrass instruments, and his high lonesome tenor voice. Many bluegrass bands today compare themselves to Monroe's original line-up, and several of his bandmates (Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs) have gone on to forge successful careers of their own.

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Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger - American Favorite Ballads
Pete Seeger - American Favorite Ballads. © Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

The question here is really: is there a folksinger alive that hasn't, in some way, been influenced by the work of Pete Seeger? Chances are the answer is no. Seeger's cannon of work is so vast it's hard to even pin down a number of songs he's sung, written, or popularized over the years. His impressive skills as a sing-along man helped inspire a generation into activism in the 1950s and 60s, and his topical songs have inspired artists from Bob Dylan to Dan Bern to keep the legacy going.

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Alison Krauss

Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane
Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane. © Concord

Alison Krauss came on the scene after proving her prodigious fiddling talents when she was a child. Since then, with her band Union Station, she has become one of the most important ladies in contemporary bluegrass. In a genre historically riddled with men, Krauss has gracefully commanded the attention and praise of the media and her peers. She's also a producer who has worked with just about every bluegrass artist on the scene.

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Townes Van Zandt

A rogue cowboy songwriter in his day, Townes Van Zandt was the original rebel. His songs about hard times, flared emotions, and broken hearts featured intricately poetic lyrics and sweetly saddening lyrics. Though he lived a difficult life, Van Zandt managed to write some of the most timeless songs of love and sorrow in the history of contemporary songwriting, and he's also influenced other great songwriters like Steve Earle.

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Doc Watson

Doc Watson
Doc Watson. © Peter Figen

Ask just about any guitar player and they'll tell you Doc Watson is one of the best guitarists ever to grace the American folk community. His masterful command of flatpicking, along with his narrative songs and his adherence to Old Time and classic Americana have made him influential to everyone from Bob Dylan to Uncle Earl.

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Ani Difranco

When Ani Difranco started making records in the 1990s, there wasn't anyone else on the folk circuit that compared to her stage presence and mastery of the guitar. Her lyrics were political, leaning sharply to the left, and her message was one of peace and feminism. Since then, she has explored several styles and topics from jazz, funk, and spoken word poetry to the blues and even rap. In the process, she's influenced a generation of female singer/songwriters.

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Steve Earle

Steve Earle
Steve Earle. photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

From his early days as a protegée of Townes Van Zandt to his more recent work as an out-and-out protest singer and his collaboration with Del McCoury, Steve Earle hasn't stopped pushing the envelope yet. His original tunes range from classic Americana-style numbers to and straight up rock and roll. His songwriting skills are among the best in the business and his influence is felt across the lines genre.