The Top 10 Most Covered Folk Songs of all time

Folk Music

You may just want to skip down to the list. That’s ok, but to understand how that list was developed, there are many things to consider. When we hear the term Folk Music, it can mean different things, depending on your country of origin. To begin, we need to talk about traditional songs, those mostly acoustic-storytelling, patriotic, protest or with commentary on social issues. In the US and Canada these songs, in large majority came from the UK, Ireland and Europe. They have been passed on by oral tradition. There are a number of archives that have lists with lyrics preserving these old songs, the Child and perhaps the most well known is the Roud Folk Song Index with over 250,000 songs and each having their own identification number. Many Folk songs are Ballads, but not all. Many are based on poems and indeed many of the authors of Folk songs are considered as Poets. In North America they date back to the 1700’s and some well before, and include many songs written by American Songwriters. Often with older Folk songs the author is unknown and therefore listed as “Traditional”.

Many ethnic and foreign language Folk songs were very popular in the US and Canada. While not the most recorded outside of the children’s song genre, the Traditional French Folk Song/Nursery Rhyme “Frère Jacques” was sung in school’s across North America. There are also many songs with roots in other languages that have been translated into English. Sometimes parts of the orignal song was used as well. For example “Wooden Heart”, originally recorded by Elvis Presley for the movie G.I. Blues in 1960 is from a Traditional German Folk song “Muß i denn, muß i denn zum Städtle hinaus” or shorten to “Muss i denn“. An English version by Joe Dowell hit #1 on Billboard the week of August 26 in 1961. “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens is a Rock and Roll song but it is taken from a Mexican Folk song, the version from the movie by Los Lobos hit #1 in 1987. There are many other examples such as the Cuban Folk song “Guantanamera”, sung entirely in Spanish, it was a hit for The Weavers in 1963 and using the same arrangement in 1966 The Sandpipers version peaked at #9 on Billboard. I guess what I am getting at here is that we have to keep an open mind about what a Folk song is and I will explore the question – when does it become a Pop song or vice versa?

The American Folk Revival

When I think of Folk Music, my attention goes to the American Folk Revival, which is a period from the mid 1940’s to its peak in the mid 1960’s. This was led by Pete Seeger. His group The Weavers where the most prominent and indeed sold the most records at that time. Seeger would also form The Almanac Singers that would include Folk legend Woody Guthrie. Occasional members also included other stalwarts of the genre like Leadbelly, Josh White and Cisco Houston. Other notable names include Burl Ives, Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Judy Collins and Joan Baez began her rise in 1958. At the forefront in the early days was the Musicologist and many other things, John Lomax who would seek out Leadbelly in prison and help write “Goodnight Irene” that would be a big hit for The Weavers. His daughter Bess Lomax Hawes would also perform and take the mantle from her father in preserving the music as a Folklorist.

Judy Collins and Pete Seeger

Folk singers at that time were considered by many to be Communists and indeed many were card carrying members. They were pro: workers, trade unions, migrate workers, the downtrodden and anti government. In fact, in the 1950’s many of the songs were banned and fear of Communism drove much of the movement underground. Politics aside the music continued and at the height of the genre in the late 1950’s were the Kingston Trio who had a string of hit songs and an unprecedented four albums in the Billboard Top 10 in 1959. Other groups would follow such as The New Christy Minstrels and Peter, Paul and Mary (PP&M) would post a #1 hit with John Denvers “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and also chart songs from Gordon Lightfoot as well as their own original songs. They would release seven singles written by Bob Dylan and in fact it was PP&M who helped bring him into prominence when then covered “Blowin’ In the Wind”. Their version entered the top 20 in July of 1963 and would hit #2 the week of August 20. Held back by “Fingertips Part II” by the 13 year old Little Stevie Wonder. Some of the other notable names include Richie Havens, Odetta, Elizabeth Cotten, Phil Ochs and Tom and Dick Smothers through their TV show (1967-69) did much to promote Folk Music.

Bob Dylan

While the names I mentioned above gave rise to the revival, it was Bob Dylan that put the genre at a par with popular music. While he was in the mix of the best singers of the early 1960’s it is his songs that have ascended above most of them. More of them have stood the test of time, at least from the standpoint of artists wanting to cover his songs. While we can argue about when Dylan’s songs were no longer Folk, and then more Folk Rock and indeed straight up Rock, his imprint on the genre is indelible. While Dylan’s music has evolved, his Folk roots represent some of his most impactful and prolific years. There is no other author of songs that has more titles covered by other artists. According to there are 359 of his songs from 4,196 artists resulting in 7,376 versions. I can’t find anyone as a Singer/songwriter that has written more hit songs recorded by other artists. While most of his originals were not big chart toppers, with not a single #1 and just nine songs hitting the top 20 (Hot 100), we can go from Jimi Hendrix and Manfred Mann to Cher and The Byrds, all tolled there are at least 20 of his songs that hit the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and or on the UK Singles Chart. Almost all of these hits were from Dylan’s earlier Folk songs. More recently Ketch Secor of the Folk revivalist string band The Old Crow Medicine Show took an unfinished Dylan song and “Wagon Wheel” became their signature song. BTW those guys are awesome. In 2013 Darius Rucker would take it to #1 on the Country Charts and #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The “Rock Me Mama” hook came from songs by Blues legends Big Bill Broonzy and Arthur Crudup.

Songs over time

Today there are many subgenre that help us classify Folk; Old Time-y Folk, Traditional, Celtic, Acoustic and more. Now a song does not have to be old in order to qualify as a Folk Song, and many great ones may be more Folk Pop. Roots music is related to Folk as is Americana. However all of these are deeply rooted in the style of Traditional Songs. I have given some examples where songs have been adapted from Folk and some that, over time have become Folk. While Bruce Springsteen recorded an album called We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, honoring the songs Pete Seeger, what of some his original songs? We certainly consider Tracy Chapman as a Folk Singer, John Prine was sort of adopted by the County genre but many of his songs are Folk. Mumford & Sons, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin all fit. Buffy Sainte Marie is many things but much of her own music is about Indigenous life and awareness, her “Universal Soldier” became very popular on the Folk circuit after it became a hit for Donovan.

I don’t want to rush through the Contemporary Folk music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and throughout the UK. The songs and traditions run deep in these places with a rich history that predates and also intertwines with the American Revival. Another day I will talk about the many great artists like Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. While we are perhaps not there yet, in the not too distant future, Pop songs from Stevie Wonder like “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” or The Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”and more will be the new Folk Songs. Consider songs that have lasted for many centuries in any country or countries, are they not indeed Folk Songs? Just one more example, while Édith Piaf may have first performed “La Vie en rose” in Cabarets back in 1946, it has endured as a Pop Standard and yet every word of this and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” is known by almost every French Citizen today. They have become Folk songs. So I ask another question. How much weight do we place on the composition of the song? The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as “a traditional or composed song typically characterized by stanzaic form, refrain, and simplicity of melody”. That’s pretty general I’d say.

Qualifying the List

For almost as long as there have been music charts, Folk Songs do not appear in the top 40 very often. However they do seem to last, some of these songs have been around for so long, most everyone has, if not joined into a sing-a-long at home, school or maybe summer camp, will it recognize immediately. I have used my own judgement as to which songs I feel belong as ‘Folk’ or Pop Folk as we would call many of the songs from the 1960’s onward. As I noted above, the relationship to Country is sometimes very close, and the subgenre of Bluegrass has many songs of Folk Origin. So if it’s close to another genre the list will have songs that are heavily weighted on the Folk side.

Blues music has many songs of Folk origin as well, so I will pass over songs like “St. James Infirmary” that is staple of the genre. The tune is based on an Irish Ballad (Roud 2645). That Traditional songs first recording is “The Bard of Armagh” from 1923 by John McCormack. Later recorded as “The Unfortunate Rake” and then “St. James Hospital” by Pete Seeger (1957) but the bulk of the some 650 recordings are from the Blues oriented versions that started in 1937. Sometimes the same song, perhaps with a different arrangement has been recorded in just about all genre, including Blues, Big Band and Jazz Vocals, Rock and Pop.

If you are sufficiently confused now, you know how I feel trying sort all this out. There is no road so crooked as the way following versions of Folk Songs. I have just a couple more points before I get to the list. As with most lists, I will exclude Christmas and Holiday Songs as well as those that are strictly instrumentals. For example this would exclude songs such as “Щедрик (Schedrik)” written/arranged by Mykola Leontovych in 1922. This (mostly New Years) Ukrainian Folk song with strong traditional roots that are hundreds of years old has come back into the spotlight with Russian invasion. However most will know it from the English translation “Carol of the Bells” which accounts for most of the ‘cover’ versions.

Not that I have anything against songs of a religious or spiritual nature such as “Amazing Grace” but that is yet another list, so I will be excluding ‘Church’ hymns also. As I say that, there are many Folk Songs that are adapted from Spiritual songs, so the lines continue to get even more blurry. Just as an example, the song “Down by the Riverside” has several variations (including Anti-war songs) but it is, at the heart an African American Spiritual. I included the YouTube video from The Byrds who ‘turned’ the Pete Seeger song “Turn, Turn, Turn” that was based on the book of Ecclesiastes (from The King James Bible) into a #1 hit song. In that vein there are a number of other song adaptations that I will not include, “Love Me Tender” actually falls under the heading of the Folk Song “Aura Lee” but the number of cover versions is attributed to the former, not the latter.

We have a Joni Mitchell penned song on the list and I struggled with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that now has 540 versions but decided the complexity of the song structure disqualifies it as a Folk song. This despite the fact that the more sanitized and simplified Shrek version is running rampant.

My apologies for all the above qualifying but when I go through hundreds and hundreds of songs and make my lists I do try and categorize, at least in a general way, whenever possible. Just a reminder that these songs may change positions as new versions are added daily.

Here are The Top 10 Most Covered Folk Songs

Statistics used are from from April 1, 2023-no joking.

  1. Bridge Over Troubled Water” written by Paul Simon and is the 59th most recorded song and at 645 versions is the #1 most recorded Folk song. First released by Simon and Garfunkel in 1970 on the album of the same name. The single reached #1 in February of 1970 and stayed there for six weeks.
  2. Both Sides Now” written by Joni Mitchell. It is the 144th most recorded song and there are 462 versions. First Recorded by Judy Collins, produced by Mark Abramson and arranged by Joshua Rifkin. Collins would reach #3 on Adult Contemporary and #8 on The Hot 100 in 1968 and rank #87 at year end.
  3. Blowin’ In the Wind” was written by Bob Dylan and there are currently 436 versions. It is the 209th most recorded song. See my notes above for more info. The original did not chart but it is the fourth ranked Dylan song on the Rolling Stone Magazine list at #100 out of 500 songs.
  4. Scarborough Fair” has 402 versions. It is 12 on the Roud list. It dates back to a Scottish ballad from around 1610. It was also known as “The Elfin Knight”. The first recording is by Gordon Heath and Lee Payant in 1955. It is best known through the adaptation by Simon and Garfunkel, released in 1966 and titled “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”. It reached #11 on the Hot 100 in 1968.
  5. The Sounds of Silence” was written by Paul Simon and there are 390 versions. Released by Simon and Garfunkel on October 19, 1964. Famously remixed by producer Tom Wilson and re-released, resulting in a #1 song for the week ending January 1, 1966.
  6. Danny Boy” has 365 versions and was adapted from a Traditional Northern Irish song “Londonderry Air” or just “Derry Air” dating back to the 1600’s. Though the melody has a tricky past with dozens of names and variations, not to mention lyrics. The “Danny Boy” lyrics were written (1910) and published by Fred Weatherly in 1913. If combined with other adaptations such as “He Looked Beyond My Fault” there are 777 versions. Though the original lyrics by Weatherly were not set to the tune of “Derry Air”, it somehow got transformed when he gave it to a famous Opera singer (of Austrian descent), Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1917. She is the first to have recorded it. More than somewhat ironically, the song was written in England by an English Barrister who, as it happens was also a well known songwriter and author of perhaps as many as 3,000 songs. Although the words themselves have nothing to do with the Irish in particular, it is because it was based on an that familiar Northern Irish melody that this beautiful song became adopted by, and is a staple of the music of both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not to mention Pubs around the world. The words are known by most everyone of Irish decent (aka my best buddy Steve). This is a great article exploring the songs history.
  7. Shenandoah” is a song with a long history and the melody is regarded as a Traditional song as we do not know who came up with it originally. It has 319 versions. With lyrics it’s a love song with reference to the Missouri River. It’s roots have been traced back to the days of the Fur Trade and Canadian and American Voyageurs and has been sung as a Folk song for many years. The first documented recording is by John Goss and the Cathedral Male Voice Quartet in 1928 and is sung in the form of a Sea Shanty. For these reasons I hesitated to place it on my list of Country songs. However there is a compelling case for why it deserves a mention as a Country song. The song had humble beginnings in the early days of recording. Initially it was very sparsely recorded as the next version came out eight years later in 1936, followed by one in 1948 then once in 1952, but for some reason the song gained traction in 1957 with six recordings. The first rendition in a Country style that I could find is by the typically more Country /Pop oriented Jimmie F. Rodgers (Honeycomb) in 1959.
  8. Wayfaring Stranger” is a Traditional song with 314 versions. It is song 3349 on the Roud list. It’s history is rooted in those of Melungeon ethnicity. They had a concentration of peoples in the Appalachia. They are a little known group of Sub Saharan African and European descent that were brought over as slaves. During the days of the Slave Trade some came from Portugal but their dark skin was enough to make them at best, indentured servants. The song was first recorded as the “The Wayfaring Pilgrim” by Vaughan’s Texas Quartet but soon covered by Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Followed by a mixture of more Folk, Country and Bluegrass legends such as Bill Monroe, Glen Campbell and Emmylou Harris.
  9. John Henry” has 308 versions and while it was published in 1900, the authors are unknown making this another Traditional song, Roud #790. What we do know is that John Henry is an American Folklore hero. While there are several origin stories the jist of it is that he was a former slave who was a Steel Driver working on the construction of Railroads in the mid to late 1800’s. His job was, taking a large sledge like hammer and using a steel spike to “drive” a hole in the rock to allow explosives to be placed inside. As the song unfolds a steam operated drill was brought in to replace the Steeldrivers but John Henry would not be bested by a machine. He raced it and he won but his efforts left him weakened and he died. First recording is by the Folk and Country pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1924. A notable instrumental version on harmonica is from the Folk/Country artist Deford Bailey who in the 1930’s was the first and only African American to be a member of The Grand Ole Opry until Charlie Pride in 1967.

10. “Oh Susanna” It is a Folk song, with some aspects of Country. I did not add a clip as this song is at the very least insulting by today’s standards and for Black Americans it has always been racist. However it is a matter of American History and it’s story should be known. It was written by a man dubbed as The Father of American Music, Stephen Foster and at *326 versions is, unfortunately, his most covered song. He also wrote “Beautiful Dreamer”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Old Folks Home”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Camptown Races” among dozens more, all tolled there are well over a thousand versions of this songs. It was first recorded in a medley of his songs by the Victor Mixed Chorus also known as the Victor Male Chorus. While it may not have been intended by Foster the song was adopted as a symbol of the Confederacy. I have to say that when written during his time, that being 1826 to 1864 the songs and some of the lyrics are a reflection of that period. Some of the verses of “Oh Susanna” portray it as a little love ditty and quite innocuous, however parts of the song that are no longer sung or hopefully even available had racial epithets and by any standards were beyond offensive. It was also taught as a children’s song at the (previous) turn of the Century and for that, the racist verses were eventually omitted, with a focus on the Chorus section. I really don’t know how many recordings were made with the all verses but for many years now the offensive lyrics have been replaced and it is still frequently performed. I was surprised that the song “Venus” by the Dutch group Shocking Blue shares a writing credit with this song and Stephen Foster. This comes by way of part of the melody, which follows “The Banjo Song” that was in turn adapted from (as once titled) “Oh, Suzzana”.

*This also accounts for close to 100 of the 326 cover versions.

I did say I was not going to include ‘Christmas’ and related songs but this one deserves a mention as it is one of the oldest enduring songs in history. “Greensleeves” is a Traditional English Folk Song with over 1,800 versions. Taken directly from is the following: “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” was registered by Richard Jones at the London Stationer’s Company in September 1580 and Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ (1597) has a reference to the song by that name.” There were many versions of the song (melody) registered soon after. The author of the song is unknown. Shakespeare wrote or at least “re-wrote” songs for his plays but research shows this song existed much earlier. The first recording appears in a medley including “Green-Sleeves” by Raymond Dixon, William Hooley & Reinald Werrenrath in 1915. It was credited as music from Shakespeare. There are hundreds of instrumentals of the song and the tune was used for “What Child is This” and “On Christmas Day in the morning”. As the titles are so intertwined it is difficult to get a handle on the number of Christmas Carols vs. the Folk versions. As a Folk Song I believe it would be in the range of 300 versions.

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

21 thoughts on “The Top 10 Most Covered Folk Songs of all time

  1. Impressive work as always, Randy. I, too, tend to think of the American Folk Revival first and foremost, but it always fascinating to uncover the true origin points! I would have thought for sure “Blowin’ in the Wind” would be No. 1 and that “Sound of Silence” would be a bit higher, so again, just really interesting to see how it all shakes out. Excellent work once again!


    • Thanks very much. Yes, I just follow the numbers! I do try and find other sources but no one is more thorough than Secondhandsongs. Oddly I can’t find anything else on Dylan or Paul Simon like I could from Joni If I used those numbers she would be at #1.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Randy this is a fantastic post… I would never have guessed Both Sides Now would beat out Blowin’ In The Wind in cover versions. Another one I’ll bookmark.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Wow… that is a bunch.
        The top one…I never really thought of that as a folk song but I guess it is…with a pop sheen.


      • It’s definitely got that Folk element and many of the cover versions seem to reflect that aspect. But you are right it borders Folk Rock and Folk Pop as well. As I said in the post, not in so many words but many Folk songs live on the fringes of other genre.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You surely put an impressive amount of research to inform this post. I only knew the first five songs on your list, as well as “Oh Susanna” and “Greensleeves”. And of course “Turn, Turn, Turn,” though only the rendition by the Byrds.

    Back in my teenage days when I was taking classical guitar lessons, my great guitar teacher showed me a pretty instrumental version of “Greensleeves”. I’m afraid I’ve completely forgotten how to play it. Plus, back then I knew how to read sheet music. Pretty much of that knowledge is likely gone as well by now!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Blimey, you sure do deep dive in your posts! I watched an old movie with Kristofferson the other day, Lone Star’ and it mentioned the Melungeon in passing . All new to me; and I guess now I’m going to have to look at the original ‘Oh Susannah.’ The past sure is no place to find political correctness, I fear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I liked that movie! I missed that reference. No political correctness then and for songs like that there should have been. Like I said we should know these things so we can be better.

      Liked by 1 person

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