Greatest Folk Rock Songs

My “Greatest” Folk Rock Songs

The Byrds

To begin the ‘greatest of’ topic in my “Not all ‘Greatest of’ lists are created equal” post I talked about the creation of lists and then got a start on a list of my own. One does not have to be genius to come up with such a list but I do take some time to do my research. So to use a popular term these days I have ‘curated’ the songs, many of which you will find on other lists but I have my own take so perhaps you will learn something new.

The Folk Rock subgenre is pretty self explanatory, Folk plus Rock. But what kind of ‘folk’ are we talking?  On the international music scene or traditional ‘Folk’ music from any country for that matter, we find within their borders they have regional, indigenous, instrumental, vocal, cultural and language/dialect based ‘Folk’ music. However for this definition we look to the evolution of American Folk music post WWII, so late 40’s, the 50’s and very early 60’s, characterised by acoustic instruments (primarily guitar) and clear vocals with a story or message in the lyrics. Many songs included the harmonica which is still widely used in Folk Rock, Rock etc. not to mention significantly featured in Blues styles. Replace the acoustic instruments with the electric guitar, electric bass, add drums and electronic keyboard, an uptempo beat and you get the best of the two genres of Folk and Rock. What is more difficult is to try and identify artists that actually belong in the category.

The first song that comes to mind (I will discuss below) forced me to examine the definition and genesis of the Folk Rock genre. As most certainly some of Bob Dylan’s music can be placed in this subgenre but not all, some of the Byrds early stuff as I’ve learned, absolutely but then they went more Country Rock. Joni Mitchell started using a lot of electric guitar in the late 70’s but I don’t place her in this category as there are few if any of her songs that sound like ‘Rock’ at all. The previously blogged Linda Ronstadt has perhaps a couple songs and the Country rooted Emmylou Harris had perhaps some Folk Rock sounding tunes with the “Hot Band” in the mid seventies and maybe some later stuff like  ‘Wrecking Ball’ from 1995. In fact many artists I’ve found in my research described as being in this subgenre don’t seem to stay in that pocket for long. Many fall more into Rock or Country or let’s take the Folk artists like ‘Mumford and Sons’, they just don’t have the ‘rock’ instrument line up and their songs are very acoustic driven. The bands ‘America’, ‘Crosby, Stills Nash (& Young)’ seem at times very much Folk Rock, ‘The Mamas and Papas’ yes, some ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ but not for example ‘The Grateful Dead’. I like ‘Moby Grape’ who are often defined as Folk Rock but find them more Country Rock and does some of CCR’s stuff fit here? They are defined as “Swamp Rock” so I’m not sure. So there’s a lot of music that’s better defined as just plain Rock, Folk or one of Country musics many sub genre.

So it seems to me while there are several artists in this subgenre there are also many sort of ‘one off ‘songs we can easily identify as ‘Folk Rock’. As many artists such as Harris, Ronstadt, Dylan and Young in their various incarnations have produced works that fit.

My choice for – Greatest Folk-Rock ‘Cover Song’ of all time
Mr. Tambourine Man
There is little debate on this song being the start of the subgenre. “Mr. Tambourine Man” covered by ‘The Byrds’ was written by Bob Dylan. This Byrds version was recorded April 12, 1965. Dylan began playing the acoustic original in concert in 1964, recorded it in studio January of 1965 but it’s first record release was March 22, 1965 on the album ‘Bringing It All Back Home’. It was not released as a single by Dylan, but it was by ‘The Byrds’. There was a lot of cross pollination going on during theses days and ‘The Byrds’ got introduced to a record producer named Jim Dickson. If you look at the release dates it would appear The Byrds followed Dylan’s original by just three weeks, but Dickson somehow got a copy of Dylan’s song before it was released and they started to cover an amplified version in their live performances. They invited Dylan to listen and he really liked it, got the blessing to release their version and Folk Rock was born.
It’s a long story of how it all came about because the membership of ‘The Bryds’ was not fully formed as a competent music band at the time of “Mr. Tambourine Man” which was ‘their’ first hit song. The producer ended up being Terry Melcher and he wanted a more professional sound. Jim (Roger) McQuinn (he would go by Roger after 1967) was joined on guitar by Jerry Cole and other members of the later known “Wrecking Crew”, Leon Russell on keyboards, Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on bass guitar. The original trio of ‘The Byrds’ were members; Gene Clark and David Crosby who provided only vocals as did McQuinn (in addition to his guitar playing).
The song would hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Cashbox in the US, #1 in the UK and South Africa and #2 in Canada. They would follow with another Dylan song “All I Really Want to Do” which would hit #4 in the UK. In the US they were out gunned by Cher’s version that reached #15 while they peaked at #40. While the line-up would soon change the 1965 band was David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, and Jim (Roger) McGuinn. They would end the year with their only other number one hit “Turn, Turn, Turn” a cover of a Pete Seeger song he wrote in the 1950’s using the third chapter of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

Here is one of the most well known, highly rated and studied songs of all time. Ranked as the #1 Rock Song on many lists but to many it is pure Folk Rock. I’ve already talked about it a few times, but there is some new (to my blog) information in this posting.

My choice for – Greatest Folk-Rock Song of all time
Like a Rolling Stone”

Like a Rolling Stone” was written of course by Bob Dylan, and recorded June 15 & 16 of 1965. Released July 20 and produced by Tom Wilson.  It is a pivotal song in music history for more than one reason, not the least of which it’s a brilliant piece of writing. It also marked a change in the way Dylan performed his music but not so much about how he wrote his lyrics. And as a seemingly not unfamiliar story about some of the greatest songs, fate once again played a great role in the song reaching our ears. It came from a time when the exhausted Dylan was so disillusioned with music he was considering quitting, yet he scrambled the song together from some 10 pages of handwritten notes. Partly inspired by the very old proverb containing the line “a rolling stone gathers no moss” written by Publilius Syrus, Dylan had heard it referenced in the Hank Williams song “Lost Highway”. Combined with some ideas he had written in a short story about a lonely “Debutante” and with a bit more refining the final words were written.

In the studio it was a tumultuous two day 20 take effort with no sheet music, musicians being shuffled about and arguments about the final cut. I have not mentioned this and some of you will know, this song almost missed out on being released at all. The record company did not think it would sell, because it (for a Dylan song) was too ‘rock-like’ and at 6:13 minutes they were certain no radio station would play it. Not to mention the lyrics were aggressive and pretty hard on whomever “Miss Lonely” was in her “fall from grace”. According to Shaun Considine the release coordinator at the time for Columbia Records, he said he took a demo copy and got the DJ at Club Arthur in New York to play it one night. The crowd full of celebs and music industry types apparently demanded the song be played over and over. The next day radio DJ’s were calling Colombia Records to demand copies.

So with “Like a Rolling Stone” we have a song that was; almost never completed, by an artist ready to quit the business, a record company that didn’t want to release it and yet it becomes one of the most celebrated and talked about songs of all time. If that is not fate than I don’t know what is. I wasn’t going to but I just can’t resist… this folk-rock song was taken for ‘granite’ {sic}, but like any true “rolling stone” it “gathered no moss”. I sincerely a-pun-ologize.

The song went on to hit the top 10 of most charts, but the only #1 ranking was from Cash Box. Covered first in 1965 by ‘The Soup Greens‘ a Garage Band from NYC and since then about 120 times. The other versions that stood out for me while perusing the list were; The Turtles (1965), Cher (1966), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (1968), Jimi Hendrix (1970), Mick Ronson with David Bowie (1994),  Bachman Cummings (2007), Green Day (2009) and more recently a lovely Australian couple Jess & Matt (2018).

The Folk Rock genre rose from the folk music revival of the early 1960’s and the term was first used to describe the music of ‘The Byrds’ by Music Journalists in the U.S. As mentioned the initial studio created ‘Byrds’ used rock instruments in covering Bob Dylan songs to bring about a new sound that took off so quickly other artists could not jump on the bandwagon quickly enough. Dylan himself decided to go ‘electric’ in March 1965, he released a full side of electric guitar songs on his fifth album ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, and producing the aforementioned “Like a Rolling Stone”. And of course “Mr. Tambourine Man” was on the acoustic side of the same album, and we wonder why so many think Dylan is the center of the music universe.

Here are a few great songs that I think are fine examples of Folk Rock.

Emmy Lou Harris as mentioned is rooted in Country but here she takes a Bruce Springsteen song and it sounds to me like it fits this subgenre.
The Price You Pay” (1981)

Linda Ronstadt’s cover of a Randy Newman song also fits this category. Typical Newman, for someone winning awards for Children’s songs from ‘Toy Story’ etc we see him here with his not so veiled meanings, double entendre filled acerbic political statements. Ronstadt’s vocals gives the song a fresh delivery.
Sail Away” (1973).

A song originally written in Italian by American songwriter David “Shel” Shapiro and Italian lyricst Giulio Rapetti know as ‘Mogol’ in 1966 was covered by ‘The Grass Roots’ in 1967. This song takes us once again to Dunhill Records and two of the guys that were really at the heart of Folk Rock, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri who produced the record. “Let’s Live for Today“.

‘The Mamas and the Papas’ made a huge impact in their three short years together and helped to define the Folk Rock subgenre. “Go Where You Wanna Go” was written by John Phillips and it appeared on their first album ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’ in 1965. It was not one of their hits and it was actually withdrawn as a single, still to me one of their better original songs.

You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice” was a #10 hit in 1966 for by ‘The Lovin’ Spoonful’, written by band members Steve Boone and John Sebastian. This was the second of their first seven hit songs to reach the top 10, at the time only Gary Lewis and the Playboys had achieved this mark.

‘America’ with “Ventura Highway” hit top tens around the world and it’s a more representative ‘Folk Rock’ song from the band with the electric guitar lead. They have more acoustic driven material such as the #1 in the US, Canada and Finland in 1972, “A Horse with no Name” both written by the only American band member Dewey Bunnell, along with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley this London England based group made quite the international splash leading to sixteen albums and 47 singles released in their career.

Much of Simon and Garfunkels music I feel is either ‘Folk’ or ‘Rock’ and this song was originally recorded in 1964 with just acoustic guitar. As I’ve already blogged about it I’ll just go directly to this studio enhanced electric version making it a Folk Rock classic. “The Sound of Silence” was overdubbed in studio on June 15, 1965.

Folk music in general has a lot to say about the human condition and as a result songs of unjust treatment are ubiquitous in the genre. But not all protest songs are about the same topics as some are quite specific and others much more general in nature. I’ve read a bit on this topic and we can trace the protest song through the history of poets and folklore, but American Sociologist and Author, R. Serge Denisoff (he taught at Bowling Green State University, Ohio and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia among others) divides them into categories that made sense to me. He said the protest songs can either be “rhetorical”, as in sending a message or as he referred to as “folk propaganda”, the other being “magnetic” that are a call to arms of sorts to attract people to a particular cause or event like the first of my two choices below. Of course protest songs are by no means the exclusive domain of the Folk or Folk Rock genre. So with this in mind once again I won’t pigeon hole artists. I’ve tried instead to categorize the songs myself, to feature what I consider to be the top Folk Rock Protest songs.
My choice for – Greatest Folk-Rock ‘Government Protest’ Song of all time
“Ohio”
Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young came out in June of 1970 and was written by Neil Young. Following the Denisoff definition I think this is in the ‘magnetic’ category. Inspired by the true life events on May 4, 1970 where four student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio were shot and killed by the Ohio State National Guard. Nine others were wounded, one was permanently paralysed. Neil Young like many millions was profoundly affected by the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by student and photojournalist John Filo which appeared in Time Magazine and other publications. The brave Filo himself was under gunfire from a States Guardsman as he took the picture. This song was written, recorded and released within weeks of the tragic incident and due to its anti President Nixon lyrics it was widely banned on radio stations across the United States. While the record was aired quite sparingly it was played on underground and student radio stations and it still managed to get to #14 in August of 1970 on BillBoard, it appears on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time and it was inducted into the Grammy Music Hall of Fame in 2009. This incident would spark the largest nationwide student protest in US history as 4 million people walked out of classes and tragically more shootings and deaths would take place. The initial protests were over the Vietnam War which would not end until April 30, 1975.
My choice for – Greatest Folk-Rock ‘War Protest’ Song of all time
“Eve of Destruction”
Eve of Destruction” was recorded in July of 1965 and first released that August by Barry McGuire on Dunhill Records. Following the Denisoff definition again and if I understand them then I think this is in the ‘rhetorical’ category. McGuire was previously a singer with the New Christy Minstrels. Written by P.F. Sloan who would also write with his collaborator Steve Barri “Secret Agent Man” made famous by Johnny Rivers (1965). While the song primarily references war “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin” alluding to the American Draft laws, it touches on Selma, Alabama and the JFK Assassination among other world events and issues. Another product of the musicianship of the “Wrecking Crew”, P.F. Sloan would also play guitar on the track. It was really just done as a demo or rough track with thoughts of finding a bigger name to record it. As the story goes, someone from the studio leaked it to a radio station and there was no need to find another singer (although it was covered 7 times just in 1965). The song would hit #1 in the US, Canada and Norway, #3 in the UK and several top 10’s around the world. Somewhat ironically the song was first offered to The Byrds who turned it down, perhaps it would have been their third #1? A great vocal performance by McGuire but it would be his only top forty hit.
My choice for – Greatest Folk-Rock ‘Social Injustice’ Protest Song of all time
“For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)”

For What It’s Worth” was written by Stephen Stills, released by his then band ‘Buffalo Springfield’ in December of 1966, it reached #7 March 18, 1967. This short lived supergroup with original members being Stills, Neil Young, Jim Messina and Richie Furay. They could not get along and after some lineup changes they disbanded after two years, but not before the legacy of this amazing song. It was one of the most prominent protest songs of the late 1960’s through to the early 70’s. Again I’ve blogged on this song but it fits the injustice category as it was written about the 10 p.m. curfew law that was put in place by Hollywood lawmakers to try and curtail loitering on the famed Sunset Strip. A rally evolved into a two day riot with several arrests including Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. The nature of the song resonated with young people in particular so it became part of many protest rallies.

For more on Folk Rock check out this more recent post.

References; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com,
https://genius.com/Crosby-stills-nash-and-young-ohio-lyricshttps://top40weekly.com/1967-all-charts/, music-amp-politics-in-the-classroom-music-politics.pdf, https://www.britannica.com/art/folk-rock
images; Dylan/Ted Russell/Polaris

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