The Best of 1950s Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Looking for something different in your music listening? Check out our blog for the best of 1950s folk music. You’ll find plenty of great tunes to enjoy, from traditional ballads to more upbeat numbers.

The Weavers

The Weavers’ influence

The Weavers were an American folk music quartet formed in 1948 by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger. The group spearheaded the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and were central to the development of the postwar folk music scene.

The Weavers’ repertoire included traditional folk songs, blues, gospel music, children’s songs, labor songs, and political protest songs. They popularized many songs that had been previously obscure, such as “Wimoweh”, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”, and “Tzena Tzena Tzena”. In 1955 they had a No. 1 hit with their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”.

The Weavers were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era for their left-wing politics. Hays and Seeger were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, but both refused to answer questions about their political beliefs or associations. Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress in 1957 but was found not guilty after a three-year trial.

The Weavers’ influence extended beyond their commercial success. Their success helped to bridge the gap between folk music and popular culture, and inspired later generations of folk musicians.

The Weavers’ sound

TheWeavers were an American folk music quartet based in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. They were one of the most commercially successful and influential groups of the 1950s. The group’s repertoire included mostly traditional folk songs and originals by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Pete Seeger, and others. The Weavers’ sound was defined by their close harmony singing and use of acoustic instruments, particularly guitar, banjo, and mandolin; in live performances, they occasionally augmented their sound with electric instruments. Their signature song was Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”, which they popularized in a 1950 arrangement and recorded as their debut single.

The Kingston Trio

The Kingston Trio was a folk music group from the 1950s that was popular for their close harmony style of singing. The group was made up of Bob Shane, Dave Guard, and Nick Reynolds. The Kingston Trio was one of the most popular folk music groups of the 1950s and their album “The Kingston Trio at Large” won a Grammy Award in 1959.

The Kingston Trio’s influence

The Kingston Trio’s tight harmonies and clever arrangements on such hits as “Tom Dooley” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” propelled folk music into the pop mainstream in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Kingston Trio, consisting of Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard, were the most successful and well-known representatives of the genre during that period, but they were just one of many Folk Revival groups that arose during the decade.

The Folk Revival was inspired in part by a growing interest in traditional folk music, particularly among college students who were exposed to it through such academic courses as ethnomusicology. Groups like the Kingston Trio popularized this music for a wider audience through their recordings and live performances, which often featured jug band tunes, work songs, blues numbers and protest songs with new lyrics reflecting contemporary social issues.

While some Folk Revival artists continued to perform traditional material, others began writing their own songs in a similar style. This trend culminated in the emergence of the singer-songwriter in the early 1960s, a type of artist who would come to dominate the folk scene in subsequent years. The Kingston Trio’s final album, released in 1967, signaled the end of an era for the group, but their influence can still be heard in many of today’s folk musicians.

The Kingston Trio’s sound

The Kingston Trio’s sound was defined by their close, smooth harmonies, creative arrangements, and clean-cut appearance. Their hits included renditions of traditional folk songs like “Tom Dooley” and “M.T.A.”, as well as more modern pop tunes like “Copacabana” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”. The Kingston Trio’s music was hugely influential in introducing the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and their sound remains unique and timeless.

Peter, Paul, and Mary

Peter, Paul, and Mary were an American folk group formed in 1961. The group was composed of Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow, and Paul Stookey. The group’s debut album, Peter, Paul and Mary (1962), was a commercial success, spawning two top ten hits: “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” and “Lemon Tree”. The group continued to record and tour throughout the 1960s and 1970s, releasing a string of hit singles and albums, including the number-one hit single “Puff, the Magic Dragon” in 1963.

Peter, Paul, and Mary’s influence

Peter, Paul, and Mary were one of the most successful and influential folk music groups of the 1950s. Their unique blend of traditional folk music with a modern sensibility struck a chord with listeners of all ages and helped to usher in a new era of popular music. The group’s simple yet powerful lyrics spoke to the hearts of a generation of young people who were searching for something more than the pop music of the day.

Despite their success, Peter, Paul, and Mary were always true to their roots as folk musicians. They never forgot their humble beginnings and the important role that music played in their lives. They continued to perform and record together until Mary’s untimely death in 2009. Their legacy continues to live on through their music and the many artists who have been influenced by their work.

Peter, Paul, and Mary’s sound

The trio’s signature sound was built on Mary Travers’ clear lead vocals, Paul Stookey’s deep and melodious bass-baritone, and Peter Yarrow’s high tenor. The group’s repertoire included folk standards such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin'” as well as their own original compositions like “Puff, the Magic Dragon”.

The trio achieved their initial mainstream success with a self-titled debut album, which included the single “Lemon Tree”. They experimented with jazz on their second album, Moving (1962), and placed several singles in the Top 40 during the early 1960s. “Don’t Laugh at Me”, which Yarrow wrote when he was 19 years old and before he had joined Peter, Paul & Mary, reached No. 3 on Billboard magazine’s Easy Listening chart in 1963. It also charted at No. 33 on the Hot 100 and rose to No. 20 on Cash Box magazine’s pop singles chart.

During this time, the group also frequently appeared on television variety shows, such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1968, they were featured in an episode of NBC’s true crime series Ironside in which they played themselves.

Despite frequent lineup changes, including the departure of Stookey in 1970 (he would return six years later), the group remained musically active throughout the 1970s and 1980s and continued to score hits on both the pop charts—with songs like 1972’s “Day Is Done”—and the adult contemporary chart—with songs like 1975’s “The Wedding Song”. They disbanded in 1970 but reunited briefly for a 1979 reunion concert tour before permanently reunion in 1983.

The Byrds

The Byrds were a seminal American rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1964. The band underwent multiple lineup changes throughout its existence, with frontman Roger McGuinn remaining the sole consistent member. The Byrds are known for their influential blend of folk and rock music, as well as their groundbreaking use of the electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.

The Byrds’ influence

The Byrds’ influence was particularly strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They are credited with helping to pioneer the musical genre of country rock, and their signature sound – jangly 12-string electric guitars, high harmonies, and youthful energy – defined the era’s counterculture movement. The band’s hits include “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “Ballad of Easy Rider.”

The Byrds’ sound

The Byrds sound was a combination of The Beatles’ pop hooks with country-rock and folk-rock. Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, Gene Clark’s harmony vocals, and David Crosby’s raw, emotive voice helped to create a new sound in popular music. The Byrds were also one of the first bands to use psychedelic elements in their music.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez’s influence

As the 1960s dawned, Joan Baez was the undisputed queen of the American folk music scene. Yet, as her career progressed and she began to experiment with different genres, she also became an important figure in the world of popular music. In fact, it could be argued that without Joan Baez, artists like Bob Dylan might never have found commercial success.

In addition to her work as a folksinger, Baez was also an activist who used her platform to raise awareness about issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War. Her passion for social justice led her to become one of the most visible faces of the protest movement in the 1960s. Thanks to her work as a folksinger and an activist, Joan Baez left a lasting mark on American culture.

Joan Baez’s sound

Joan Baez’s music is often described as “contemplative” and ” reflective.” She is known for her clear, pure voice, as well as her intricate guitar playing. Baez often wrote her own songs, but she was also known for popularizing the work of other folk artists, such as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.

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