The women of folk
Popular music is a reflection of the stories and values that people relate to and crave. Rock, soul, jazz, and blues all serve as different media to paint pictures that tend to look awfully similar; each attempting to unpack pieces of the human condition into three to five minutes of something catchy and memorable.
I’ve always had a thing for folk music. Something about its simple acoustic melodies and thoughtful, poetic lyrics feels like reading a good novel - enough plot to carry you along, yet you can passively read it while sitting in a crowded airport. Like many genres, folk has a long, complicated relationship with American culture. It has served as an agent for continuing old traditions and ideas while catalyzing the adoption of new ones. In times of national outcry, folk music repeatedly rose to the forefront of social change during the civil rights, environmental, and gender equality movements. While countless “pioneers” helped construct folk to be what it is today, I’m here to focus on some of the incredible women whose music has truly changed the world.
For decades, women have taken the stage and amplified their stories through folk music. Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Brandi Carlile: these are all icons of their respective generations, representing the triumphs and failures of their followers through their own lyrics. They are the keepers of unprotected hearts, capturing the pain of heartbreak and loss. They are the voices of untold stories, uncovering experiences shared by so many, but talked about by so few. They are the travelers of untrodden roads, wandering fearlessly through the uncertainties of life. Often overshadowed by male contemporaries (sometimes even their own partners), the women who built folk were unafraid of judgment. They wore strife as a diamond necklace, using their personal styles to rise to the top of the charts. They turned pain into something you want to play on repeat, collecting an army of followers and believers - people who once thought they were alone.
Joni Mitchell will always hold a special place in my heart. Famed for her battle cry against environmental destruction with “Big Yellow Taxi”, Mitchell lived and performed freely and honestly. Her unmistakable voice and simple guitar chords carry the weight of intensely emotional lyrics; they illuminate the pain of giving a child up for adoption (“Little Green”) and begging for peace in a time of national distress and unrest (“Fiddle and the Drum”). She is proof that vulnerability is power, teaching the world that there is strength in love and pain.
There are some artists whose words and stories have only grown stronger with time. Dolly Parton, singing about the wealth of a mother’s love (“Coat of Many Colors”), resilience and wandering (“Wildflowers”), and the poison of jealousy (“Jolene”), still stands as one of the most powerful and influential female musicians ever. She is part of a strong community of female folk artists who have inspired and collaborated with one another to create some of the most beautiful music out there.
One of my favorite modern folk groups is a pair of Swedish-born sisters known as First Aid Kit. Their song “Emmylou'' is titled after Emmylou Harris - another musical legend who left deep footprints in the folk industry with her brilliant lyrics and sweet southern voice. First Aid Kit’s success with this song and in general is a testament to the fact that the strongest, most influential people do not just reach the top of the mountain, but they blaze a path for others to follow. Emmylou Harris not only gave First Aid Kit inspiration for one of their most popular songs, but she also gave them space on the stage to sing it.
I know that not everyone is a fan of folk music, and that’s fine, but there’s a reason you probably know most of these names. These voices have put shoes on the feet of lost souls and crowns on the heads of the emotionally destitute for decades. These lyrics have burrowed themselves into ignorant minds and provoked tsunamis of social change.
It’s hard to ignore the colossal impact these women and their art have had on American culture over the years, however soft and beautiful their voices may sound. So, to all the amazing female folk artists who have made waves in the world and helped me and many others understand our place here (especially you, Joni), thank you. Your melodies will continue to echo in the hearts and minds of your fans for many, many years.
Please enjoy this playlist that features all the songs and artists I referenced in this article, plus many more favorites. It should also be noted that some of these songs could be considered country or even rock or blues, but that’s part of the beauty of folk - it can be a culmination of all of these genres put together!