6 of the Best Folk Songs of the ’60s

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The ’60s folk revival churned out an endless list of classic songs. Though the movement cannot be neatly confined between 1960 and 1969, the decade was packed to the brim with unparalleled folk singer-songwriters making waves in New York, California, and elsewhere.

Among these artists were some of the most influential musicians of all time—traditionalists and envelope pushers alike. From Arlo Guthrie to Bob Dylan, here are just six from a long list of incredible folk songs from the ’60s.

1. “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie (1967)

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” more commonly known as just “Alice’s Restaurant,” evokes the spirit of protest often found in the folk music of the era.

In the song, Arlo Guthrie tells a satirical version of a story from his and his friend Rick Robbins’ life: he is arrested and convicted of dumping trash illegally, which later endangers his suitability for the military. Sprawling and verbose, the talking blues song is a deadpanned protest of the Vietnam War draft.

2. “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel (1964)

Though this song may be resigned to a meme for many Gen-Zers, it was once a worldwide top hit and led to Simon and Garfunkel securing a record deal with Columbia.

The origin of the song’s brooding lyrics is unclear though, Paul Simon credits time spent playing guitar in his bathroom with the lights off as sparking the inspiration for the line, hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk to you again.

Garfunkel, introducing the song at a live performance in 1966, summed up the song’s meaning as “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly intentionally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

3. “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

“Helplessly Hoping” was recorded during Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first session as a group. Penned by Stephen Stills about his imminent break-up with fellow folk artist Judy Collins, the song features a simple, lulling melody and carefully crafted lyrics—exactly what you would want out of a good folk song.

4. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Bob Dylan (1963)

When Bob Dylan performed “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” for the first time at the Gaslight Cafe in October 1962, Suze Rotolo—his girlfriend at the time—had already been studying in Italy for four months. To “make himself feel better” about the separation, he penned this track which has gone on to be one of the most classic folk songs of all time.

In the verses, Dylan lays bare all the ways his girl had done him wrong before forfeiting the fight singing but don’t think twice, it’s all right. As Dylan put it, “[It’s] a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better… as if you were talking to yourself.”

5. “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell (1969)

This Mitchell-penned track was first recorded by Judy Collins. Though Collins’ version made waves on the charts, it’s Mitchell’s version that appeared on her 1969 album, Clouds, that fully bared the emotional weight of this song.

In the lyrics, Mitchell poetically compares child-like wonder to the harsh reality of life we begin to understand as we age. She says, when she was younger, clouds were bows and flows of angel hair but, 20-something Mitchell dismisses them, saying they just rain and snow on everyone. She similarly reflects on life and love before admitting she doesn’t really understand either at all.

Since Mitchell’s version, the song has been covered a number of times by the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, proving its enduring appeal.

6. “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan (1963)

Bob Dylan has far too many seminal folk hits to only be featured on this list once. Any one of his tracks from the era could top the folk annals but, we’ve chosen to close things out with “Blowin’ in the Wind” from Dylan’s second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Upon its release, this song became an anthem for Black Americans amid the Civil Rights Movement. It even went on to inspire Sam Cooke to write “A Change is Gonna Come.” In the lyrics, Dylan doesn’t claim to know all the answers to the ongoing struggle but concedes that the answers are somewhere out there, blowin’ in the wind.

(Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images)

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