In America, the 1960s are, in part, associated with flowers in people’s hair, acoustic guitars, and people sitting cross-legged singing songs of peace and love. Indeed, the decade was a boon to popular music. Especially folk music. With lilting melodies, strummed guitars, and poetic lyrics, the genre flourished. Protest songs mixed with songs about love and beauty.
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Below, we will dive into six of the most prominent folk acts of the decade, from the harmonics and the harmonies to the lovely lyrical poetry.
1. Simon & Garfunkel
When you look up vocal harmonies in the dictionary, a picture of these two immediately pops up. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met as teenagers and established a connection early on. Together, they define the idea of vocal blending. With songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Mrs. Robinson,” the two set language and melodic delivery over all else. Known first as Tom & Jerry, Simon & Garfunkel have been together intermittently throughout the years, but never so impactfully as their time in the ’60s.
Together they sing in “The Sound of Silence,” Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again / Because a vision softly creeping / Left its seeds while I was sleeping / And the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence.
2. Bob Dylan
The Bard. Bob Dylan helped bring folk music into the mainstream, into everyday conversation, with his songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and, in fact, many of the biggest names in music in the ’60s were singing Dylan’s songs, including The Byrds and Peter, Paul & Mary. Not only was he making a career for himself, but he was indirectly doing so for others. Dylan, who rose to popularity with his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is perhaps the most important songwriter of the 20th century.
On “Visions of Johanna,” he sings, Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet? / We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it / And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it / Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough / The country music station plays soft / But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off / Just Louise and her lover so entwined / And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.
3. Crosby, Stills & Nash
Formed in 1968 between three talented songwriters and performers, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, the trio later incorporated Neil Young in 1970. One of the trio’s earliest hits was “Wooden Ships,” which appeared on their eponymous album. The record blends folk sensibilities with rock music, boasting harmonies, guitar leads, and a driving beat.
On “Wooden Ships” they sing, Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy / Easy, you know the way it’s supposed to be / Silver people on the shoreline, let us be / Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy
4. Peter, Paul & Mary
Formed in 1961, the trio included Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers. The three wrote their own songs and were also known for covering Dylan’s songs. Their renditions were not big or bombastic. Instead, they were smaller, approachable, softer, and rich with harmony and passion. The group also covered American standard songs and tunes from other lyrical songwriters like Pete Seger. Their song “Puff the Magic Dragon” remains iconic today.
They sing, Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea / And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee / Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff / And brought him strings, and sealing wax, and other fancy stuff.
5. The Mamas & the Papas
Formed in 1965, the group lasted only four years. But while together, they blasted out beautiful, truly stirring songs like “California Dreamin’.” In those four years, the band was prolific, releasing five studio albums and 17 singles, six of which hit the Billboard Top 10. The Mamas & the Papas sang backup on the original “California Dreamin'” recording and their version, cut a year later, is the most well-known version today.
The group sings, All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) / And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray) / I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk) / On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day) / I’d be safe and warm (I’d be safe and warm) / If I was in L.A. (if I was in L.A.).
6. The Byrds
Formed in L.A. in 1964, the band’s Roger McGuinn remained the sole member through its lineup changes. But at its best, The Byrds was a group that could give you chills and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Known for singing traditional songs (and Dylan songs), the harmony-driven band was popular for tracks like, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is also known as “To Everything There Is a Season” and was written by Pete Seeger.
On the song, the band sings angelically, To everything turn, turn, turn / There is a season turn, turn, turn / And a time to every purpose under Heaven / A time to be born, a time to die / A time to plant, a time to reap / A time to kill, a time to heal / A time to laugh, a time to weep.
Photo: Legacy Recordings