In the first instalment on Folk Rock
, I talked about the origins and the founders of the genre such as Bob Dylan and The Byrds. I stand by my observation that for the most part, the genre hosts songs rather than artists. The February 2020 post has become my most viewed since then and actually doubles the next in line, Bohemian Rhapsody
. Perhaps this genre has become more popular with the current state of the world and it’s coming up on Google searches, so I thought it might deserve a second part. This means a bit more exploring and then moving beyond the formative years of the 60s and early 70s.
What defines a Folk-Rock song?
On the surface it is simply a blend; you take a folk song and add elements of Rock and there you have it. The perfect example is the first song that got labelled “Folk Rock” which was the cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man
” by The Byrds. It was recorded January 20, 1965 and released on April 12. But that one is easy because it was a folk song that was remade using electric guitar that made it into a new genre. But what about before that song, and more importantly what about the songs that came after? Let’s call these periods Before Mr. Tambourine Man (BMTM
) and After (AMTM
) being post release of April 12, 1965.
According to Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, BMTM
The Beatles had some influence through their chord progressions (order that chords are played), making subtle folk infusions in songs like “She Loves You” (1963), “I’m a Loser” and “Things We Said Today
” released in 1964. There is no doubt however some of that influence came from Dylan, particularly with the song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
” (1965) which introduces some folk lyrics with the chord progression McGuinn was talking about. So, I never imagined this but if we let the Beatles into the Folk Rock genre, we need to expand the definition a bit. At the heart of it, a Folk Song tells a story and for many of those (stories) it gets passed on and reworded and rearranged for generations. The Folk revival of the 1950s and 60s saw many of these songs coming back and new songs commenting on social change and injustice became the stock and trade of the genre. But BMTM these songs were all acoustic which is a defining quality of the Folk genre. Hence, we can easily relate to the storytelling of Bob Dylan or the traditional Folk song with the addition of electric instruments to give us the Folk Rock genre. These songs have been covered in one way or another thousands of times, “Mr. Tambourine Man” itself nearly 200 times since the Byrds in 1965.
Now to After Mr. Tambourine Man (AMTM
). As mentioned in my first post, beyond Dylan and The Byrds we had: The Grassroots, The Mama’s and The Papa’s, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Simon and Garfunkel and many more. AMTM
there was a feel to the newly composed songs that made them seem old in an odd sort of way, or maybe the word ‘familiar’ is more accurate, while at the same time imbibed with new energy. So out of this folk revival, we see many artists gravitate to this new style of blending the old and the new. We had the jangly guitar of George Harrison
that influenced The Byrds among others, even evolving into its own sub-genre called Jangle Pop
. It wasn’t just the singers and players shaping the genre, there was Bob Dylan’s producer, Tom Wilson who was a key influencer in his ‘electric’ sound and this is the same guy who in June of 1965 remixed Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964
originally acoustic song to this (released Sept 12, 1965) “Sound of Silence
” with electric guitars, making it a Folk Rock classic. Therefore, we see Folk Rock as having the story elements of a Folk song and/or the chord progressions blended with electric guitar. Now enough defining; perhaps it’s time to talk about some more names associated with the genre.
Crosby, Stills, Nash (CSN) and sometimes Young (CSNY)
Each of these artists were established superstars before getting together and the bulk of work was done by the trio of David Crosby (formerly of The Byrds) Steven Stills (who just left Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (moved on from The Hollies). All of them are great writers, musicians and vocalists. Added on two of their eight studio albums was Neil Young (also from Buffalo Springfield). From Crosby Stills Nash & Young there is “Teach Your Children
” and “Woodstock
“. Without Young, CSN are responsible for Folk Rock classics such as “Marrakesh Express
” and “Wooden Ships
Speaking of Neil Young, which I have done many times, he has visited many genres throughout his long and impressive career including Folk Rock songs. In fact, Steven Stills was frustrated with Young wanting to “play folk songs in a Rock band” during the CSNY days yet they produced some of the best songs of the genre. I mentioned “Ohio
” in my first post and Young has some Folk-Rock songs as a solo artist such as the lead acoustic and electric guitar backup of “Heart of Gold
” which hit #1 on both the album and singles charts in 1972. Also, from 1972 there is “War Song
” that he did with Graham Nash, or any number of others such as “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop
” (2015), the classic “Rockin’ in the Free World
” (1989) apparently a favourite of Donald Trump, and the less favorite I’d guess “Let’s Impeach the President
More Folk-Rock Artists
In my first post on the topic, I focused on several songs and some of my dedicated artist profiles include Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles who clearly have songs in this genre but mostly reside in Rock and most certainly Country Rock. Sometimes I think the only thing separating a Country Rock song from a Folk Rock song is the addition of a pedal steel guitar. As a result I will mention some artists on the borders of Folk Rock. One artist linked to many names and genres is Jackson Browne. He toured with and is close friends with Ronstadt and wrote “Take it Easy
” with Glenn Frey. While well-known for many great songs such as “Doctor My Eyes
”, “Running On Empty
” and “Somebody’s Baby
” these are found in today’s Soft Rock genre and even upon their release are not typical Folk Rock fair. However, “Lives in the Balance
“, “Before the Deluge
” and “Looking East
” are a closer match.
Gram Parsons has been credited as a pioneer of more than one genre and for that, I agree. But for the most part, his impact is really about his life story, and though tragic, it is quite interesting. Whether it was with the The Byrds as the keyboard player and vocalist in 1968 (Sweethearts of the Rodeo) or his brief solo career with the album Grievous Angel and song “Return of the Grievous Angel
“, he was a primarily more of a alt Country Rock artist. However from what I’ve read he did have some influence on Folk Rock as well. There’s no argument from me on this, these were still early days of the genre so there was plenty of growth happening with Parsons certainly in the mix.
Emmylou Harris’s time in Folk Rock is brief but worthy of mention as it was an important part of the development of both the genre and her career. She was in and out of the Greenwich Village Folk music scene before Chris Hillman introduced her to Gram Parsons. This began the collaboration, though any of the work was released solely as Gram Parsons’ songs. This was her transition from a Folk artist to a Country artist and amounts to most of her short tenure in the Folk Rock genre. Her first major solo release was the album Pieces of the Sky
in 1975. This is where she continues her departure from her early days as a Folk singer; it’s said her time with Parsons opened her up to wider possibilities. You may ask why I even include her in Folk Rock at all, in part it’s because what I’ve read often places her in the genre. Though short of a very few of her songs and her time with Parsons, she really does not belong there. More on the exceptionally talented Harris at a later time.
James Taylor is connected to many of the names I’ve discussed here in one way or another. This where we get so much cross pollination (not to mention romantic entanglements) with music, in particular with Folk, Rock and Country. To me his music is Folk and Pop Rock and now also described as Soft Rock but some of his stuff has been perhaps mislabeled as Folk Rock. One of his greatest hits is “Fire and Rain
” and we maybe see the working parts of Folk Rock as well as the Carole King written “You’ve Got a Friend
” however both are with acoustic instruments as is much of his material, so it lacks the essential ‘electric’ component of Folk Rock. Though he is a capable electric guitar
player as well.
While I stick to a previous assertion that Joni Mitchell who also played with Taylor does not fit this category, I will also refer you to my short post on Joni in 2018
. In terms of genres, she can’t be pigeonholed but there are some easily identifiable progressive acoustic Folk songs such as “Big Yellow Taxi
“. Where the ‘Folk Rock’ actually comes out is in the cover version of her song “Woodstock
”, which she held back her release for CSNY’s version, previously mentioned above.
Richard Thompson is not as well-known in North America and mores the pity as this talented artist has recorded Hard Rock, Folk and Folk Rock music. Now, British Folk Rock can be quite different from the US variety and it too gets quite diverse. Thompson in his early days had a heavily Dylan/Mitchell influenced time with Fairport Convention (“She Moved Through the Fair
” and “Meet on the Ledge
“). Then there are his years with then wife Linda Thompson (“I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight
” and the most definitely Folk Rock “Wall of Death
“). Some of his solo material from the acoustic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning
” to “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me
” which is some quintessential British Folk Rock. His songs have been covered by Bonnie Raitt
, Del McCoury, Patty Loveless and dozens of others.
Billy Bragg is known for everything from Punk Rock to Folk music. His only #1 hit was in 1988 in the UK with a cover of The Beatles “She’s Leaving Home
” recorded with Cara Tivey. This ardent political activist, known for “New England
” came on to my radar through his work on Woody Guthrie lyrics. At the request of Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, he along with Wilco and Natalie Merchant set new music on a series of albums called Mermaid Avenue
Bruce Cockburn is another artist that flies under the radar, as much as someone with 34 recorded albums and 350 songs can. He’s pretty much a household name in Canada and has followings in the US and elsewhere and has performed with Emmylou Harris and Jackson Browne. He has a varied repertoire and has a keen grasp on social commentary such as in “If I Had a Rocket Launcher
” or “Lovers in a Dangerous Time
“. Best known perhaps for his Billboard Hot 100 #21 hit from 1979, “Wondering Where the Lions Are
” which has been covered by Leo Sayer
and Jimmy Buffet
Cowboy Junkies, also from Canada, are a mix of Folk Rock, Country Rock and Alt-Country. They have plenty of songs about relationships and their cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane
” is nothing less than sublime but not really Folk Rock. Their cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger
” put a new twist on it but original songs such as “This Street, That Man, This Life
” and “Anniversary Song
” certainly fit the bill.
The Indigo Girls are Amy Ray and Emily Saliers and most of their songs are classified as Folk, but these ones Rock a bit: “Hammer and Nail
” (1990) and “Go
” (1999) with Pink there is “Dear Mr. President
To wrap up, I see many songs in this classification but not a lot of artists where you can say, yes, they are straight-up Folk Rock all the time. Both Folk and Country Rock genres have sub-genres that have a feel that is similar, and we can include the closely related Southern Rock at times as well. So, define it as you will. There are certain identifiable components to Folk Rock and for me most importantly, that is the electric part, so as much as hard-driving acoustic guitar songs like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July
” or Cat Stevens “Peace Train
” may sound like Folk Rock, they just don’t meet the definition. I’ll finish with another example: Sylvia Fricker wrote the song “You Were on My Mind
” in the bathtub of the seedy Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village “because that’s the only place the cockroaches didn’t go”. BTW been there done that with my buddy Steve in New York City via the then seedy and cockroach infested Times Square Hotel in 1979, though we didn’t write any songs! Now back to the song, it appeared two years later on Ian & Sylvia’s debut album in 1965. This formed part of the legacy of the iconic Canadian Folk duo that was Ian and Sylvia Tyson, responsible for classics like “Four Strong Winds
” and “Someday Soon
”. The San Francisco based group We Five added electric guitar to “You Were on My Mind
” and turned this song into a Folk Rock hit that went to #1 on Cashbox and #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965.