50 renowned folk songs across music history

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August 9, 2021
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50 renowned folk songs across music history

Folk songs are steeped in tradition and often originate in other cultures and places like Scotland, England, and Africa. They are rooted in tales passed down through generations. Folk musician Mike Seeger once said that American folk music is, “all the music that fits between the cracks.”

Brought over from other countries by early settlers, it includes ballads, spirituals, and work songs. Folk music is also inspired by and inspires other genres of music including bluegrass, gospel, and blues, and has a history that is both expansive and impressive in its scope and depth.

Stacker dug through the rich history of folk music to spotlight 50 vetted greats. By nature of folk music, many of the songs are traditional and sung by countless artists, which is to say not all are written, or even most well-known, by the artist attributed to them.

These songs don’t come solely from folk legends, but from country and rock legends as well. They are beautiful and honest. They run throughout history and feature songs of love, protest, and heartbreak.

The list features a 1937 song about racism in our country’s capital, several songs that reflect on famous relationships and the breakups that eventually came, and even a song that was too country for Hollywood but wound up featured in a film anyway. While all these songs are unique, the one thing that binds them is the authentic way they reveal universal truths and connect people in the process.

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‘Diamonds & Rust’ by Joan Baez

“Diamonds & Rust” is from an album of the same name that reflects on Joan Baez’s relationship with Bob Dylan. It touches on many themes including heartache and loneliness, and the title track is a folk-rock song written by Baez. Released in 1975, the song recounts a phone call from an old flame that sent Baez on a nostalgic trip to the past.

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‘The Body Breaks’ by Devendra Banhart

“The Body Breaks” from Devendra Banhart’s third studio album “Rejoicing in the Hands” was featured in the 2007 New Zealand film “Eagle vs. Shark,” and is the third track on the album. Banhart both wrote and performed the song about a relationship and the connection between the body and soul that features lyrics like “The body stays / And then the body moves on / And I’d really rather not dwell on / When yours will be gone.”

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‘Didn’t It Rain’ by Harry Belafonte

While Harry Belafonte wasn’t the first singer to sing the African American gospel song, he definitely added his own spin. “Didn’t It Rain” was popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. Belafonte’s version ended up on the live double album “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall,” which hit #3 on the Billboard chart.

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‘Land Locked Blues’ by Bright Eyes

From the album “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” indie band Bright Eyes sang “Land Locked Blues” as a duet with country crooner Emmylou Harris. The song is a complex commentary on war and relationships and includes the biting lines, “There are kids playing guns in the street / and one’s pointing his tree branch at me, so I threw my hands up, I said enough is enough, if you walk away, I’ll walk away, then he shot me dead.”

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‘Last Goodbye’ by Jeff Buckley

The second single from Jeff Buckley’s only studio album “Grace” is about a relationship’s end, though many critics seemed to want to see the missing father element in the song. Buckley’s father was musician Tim Buckley, a man whom Jeff met only once, and who died of a drug overdose.

Writing for Diffuser, James Stafford explains what fans may hear when they listen to “Last Goodbye,” referring to Jeff Buckley’s untimely death before he had a chance to release another album, “Finally, the melancholy among us can hear a swan song here, a farewell note from an artist we didn’t get to until he was already gone.”

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‘Across the Lines’ by Tracy Chapman

“Across the Lines” came from Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album. While it did not receive the recognition that some of the album’s other tracks like “Fast Car” or “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” did, it was an important song. The lyrics touched upon the divide that continues to exist between white and Black Americans, “Across the lines / Who would dare to go / Under the bridge / Over the tracks / That separates whites from Blacks.”

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‘The Stranger Song’ by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen sang “The Stranger Song” for his television debut in 1966. The song appears on “Songs of Leonard Cohen” the singer’s debut album and is featured in the 1967 Canadian film “The Ernie Game,” as well as Robert Altman’s 1971 film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” about a gambler and a prostitute.

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‘Both Sides Now’ by Judy Collins

Judy Collins was the first performer to record “Both Sides Now,” and it appeared on her album “Wildflower,” though it was written by Joni Mitchell. Since the Collins recording was released as a single in 1968 and topped the charts, many artists have covered the song including Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, and Glen Campbell.

Mitchell said inspiration for the song came from the 1959 Saul Bellow novel “Henderson the Rain King,” which she was reading on a plane, “Early in the book, Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song.”

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‘Freight Train’ by Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten strung her guitar with the bass notes to the bottom, known as the Cotten style, which gave her music a unique sound. That stringing was a defining feature of “Freight Train,” her most well-known song. Cotten wrote it when she was just 11 or 12. The folk singer earned a Grammy in 1984 for best ethnic or traditional folk recording for “Elizabeth Cotten Live!”

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‘Helplessly Hoping’ by Crosby, Stills & Nash

Stephen Stills said in a 1969 Rolling Stone interview that “Helplessly Hoping” was “a real country song, as opposed to all those plastic Hollywood country songs by plastic country groups I read are happening now.” Ironically, in 2018 the song was used in the sci-fi film, “Annihilation,” starring Natalie Portman. When originally released, it was paired with “Marrakesh Express” to become the band’s debut single, and it hit #28 on the Billboard Hot 100.

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‘I’m a Dreamer’ by Sandy Denny

Many artists have covered Sandy Denny’s folk hit “I’m a Dreamer,” including Linda Thompson and the Continental Drifters. Denny released the original version, which she also wrote, in 1977. It was British folk singer Denny’s fourth and final studio album before her untimely death on April 21, 1978, after suffering brain trauma from falling and hitting her head on concrete.

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‘Lost Woman Song’ by Ani DiFranco

“Lost Woman Song” was a song about abortion. Ani DiFranco had two, one at 18 and one at 20 and always had a hard time tackling the topic until she read “the lost baby poem,” by African American poet and feminist Lucille Clifton. In an interview with literary magazine The Sun, DiFranco said of Clifton’s poem, “Her work inspired a song about my abortion, “Lost Woman Song,” which was on my first album in 1990. So I faced that fear pretty early on.”

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‘One of These Things First’ by Nick Drake

Nick Drake only recorded three albums during his brief lifetime and “One of These Things First” from his second album, “Bryter Layter,” is often considered one of his most memorable songs. The song speaks of Drake’s frustration with his music career and features the singer contemplating all the career choices he could have made, including everything from sailor to cook. Drake died of a drug overdose on Nov. 25, 1974, in his childhood bedroom. He was 26.

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‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ by Bob Dylan

One of America’s greatest songwriters and folk legends, Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” appeared on his second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and became even more relevant during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While many believed the song presented a vision of an apocalyptic world, Dylan said in a 1963 interview, “No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen … In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”

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‘New York Town’ by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

“New York Town” was written by folk legend Woody Guthrie. Jack Elliott’s version comes from the album “Jack Elliott Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie,” which was released in September 1960. Elliott became friends with Guthrie after getting his number from New Lost City Ramblers’ Tom Paley.

He told Rolling Stone, “I said, ‘Woody, my name is Jack Elliott, I’m a friend of Tom Paley’s. I’ve been listening to your records and I’ve been playing guitar for about four years.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘Jack, ya oughta come over and bring your gi-tar and we’ll knock off a couple of tunes together. Don’t come today, though—I gotta belly ache.”

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‘Bedouin Dress’ by Fleet Foxes

Off the Seattle-based indie folk-rock band’s second album “Helplessness Blues,” “Bedouin Dress,” is a complex song about relationships. Frontman Robin Pecknold talked to Pitchfork about how complex songs are never done, saying of “Bedouin Dress,” So I’d say a song like ‘Bedouin Dress’ is never ever done, it’s just finished. We could go back and do new versions of all of these of varying quality so it’s tough to say that they’re complete or definitive, especially looking at them from the inside, knowing how much revision went into them.”

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‘Box of Rain’ by Grateful Dead

“Box of Rain” is from the Grateful Dead’s 1970 album “American Beauty.” Bassist Phil Lesh composed and wrote the song with longtime songwriter for the Dead, Robert Hunter. Lesh sang vocals on the track, which was written for his dying father. It was the last song the band played together on July 9, 1995, before frontman Jerry Garcia died.

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‘Fire’ by Noah Gundersen

“Fire” was self-released by Noah Gunderson on his EP “Family.” The second track on the album speaks of freedom, and while it didn’t achieve the fame some of the album’s other tracks did—such as “David” and “Family,” which were featured on television series “The Following” and “The Vampire Diaries” respectively—it is equally as strong.

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‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ by Woody Guthrie

Released on the album “Dust Bowl Ballads,” the song is about life’s difficulties and was based on a gospel song. An unreleased version of the song was also said to be aimed at Donald Trump’s father, Fred, and his refusal to rent apartments to Blacks. Many artists have covered the song, often in tribute to Guthrie as Bob Dylan did when he performed the song with The Band at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 20, 1968, at “A Tribute To Woody Guthrie.”

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‘Boulder to Birmingham’ by Emmylou Harris

From the 1975 album “Pieces of the Sky,” this song was co-written with Bill Danoff as a tribute to Emmylou Harris’ mentor, the late Gram Parsons. The Wailin’ Jennys band covered the song, as did several other artists including Dolly Parton and Joan Baez. Harris sang “Boulder to Birmingham” live in 2006 with former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.

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‘Yarrow’ by Carolyn Hester

In his memoir “Chronicles Volume One,” folk great Bob Dylan referred to folk musician Carolyn Hester as “double-barrel beautiful.” The ballad “Yarrow” off her 1962 self-titled album finds its origins in Scotland and tells the story of a plowboy who competes with several gentlemen for a woman’s love, takes them on in a fight, wins, and is ultimately stabbed in the back by the woman’s brother. Hester’s version of the song features her unique voice against frantic guitar playing.

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‘At Seventeen’ by Janis Ian

Janis Ian has said this song was written about a time in her life when she was “really weird looking.” The haunting lyrics include, “And those of us with ravaged faces / Lacking in the social graces / Desperately remained at home / Inventing lovers on the phone.” “Seventeen” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 on Sept. 13, 1975.

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‘Rich Woman’ by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley “Li’l” Millet first wrote and recorded “Rich Woman” in 1955. Alison Krauss and former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant’s version of the song is included on their 2007 album “Raising Sand,” and they also performed it at the Grammy Awards in 2009. The song has been featured in the 2008 film “Mad Money” and covered by several other artists including Canned Heat and Boz Scaggs.

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‘Hannah’ by Ray LaMontagne

“Hannah” is featured on Ray LaMontagne’s 2004 debut studio album “Trouble.” Musician Sara Watkins plays fiddle on the track and sings background vocals. The contemplative, melodious song was written by LaMontagne and features his signature raspy voice and supports the comparisons to singer Van Morrison and early Neil Young.

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‘Bird on a Wire’ by k.d. lang

First released by Judy Collins in 1968, “Bird on a Wire” was written by Leonard Cohen and inspired by the musician’s travels to the Greek Island of Hydra in the 1960s. Lang released her cover of the song on her 2004 album “Hymns of the 49th Parallel.” Lang’s version of “Bird on a Wire” is a lighter, more uplifting version than Cohen’s.

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‘The Bourgeois Blues’ by Lead Belly

This blues song, written in 1937 and performed by blues and folk musician Lead Belly, was a response to the discrimination and racism the singer experienced on a trip to Washington D.C. and became a protest song railing against the nation’s capital. “The Bourgeois Blues” is one of the most known songs from Lead Belly, though its authorship has been called into question.

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‘She’s No Lady’ by Lyle Lovett

“She’s No Lady” appeared on country crooner Lyle Lovett’s 1987 album “Pontiac.” The track features a wife who wears the pants in the relationship and a husband who seems resigned to let her do so. Though many have said the song isn’t very country, “She’s No Lady” spent 16 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Country and peaked at #17 on April 16, 1988.

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‘Starwalker’ by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Re-recorded on “Coincidence and Likely Stories,” Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1992 comeback album, “Starwalker” was first released on her album “Sweet America” released in 1976. Sainte-Marie wrote the song as a tribute to the Native American people, acknowledging the struggles they have endured.

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‘Irene’ by Courtney Marie Andrews

Courtney Marie Andrews draws comparisons to folk legend Joni Mitchell. “Irene,” from her 2016 album “Honest Life,” is a beautiful, upbeat pop-folk track. Against swinging riffs and the melodious sounds of piano, she tells the story of a good woman who seems drawn to making bad decisions.

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‘Held Down’ by Laura Marling

The acoustic “Held Down” comes from Laura Marling’s seventh solo album, “Song for Our Daughter.” Marling’s vocals are enhanced by the harmonious background vocals, strumming guitar, and melodious beat. “Held Down” was released ahead of the album in April 2020 during the coronavirus to positive reviews.

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‘Caravanserai’ by Loreena McKennitt

“Caravanserai” is the over seven-minute-long third track on Loreena McKennitt’s seventh full-length studio album “An Ancient Muse,” released in 2006. The lyrics and song’s inspiration are drawn from McKennitt’s experiences in Turkey and Mongolia. In a review, PopMatters says, “McKennitt (who has done a masterful job of producing her own album) is spectacular in her vocal performance on ‘Caravanserai.’”

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‘Joe by the Book’ by Buck Meek

Buck Meek’s self-titled 2018 album features “Joe by the Book,” a straightforward song about an honest mechanic who does things by the book. The album’s opening track features Meek’s Texas twang and his simple lyrics set around a car repair.

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‘Coyote’ by Joni Mitchell

The first song on Joni Mitchell’s 1977 album “Hejira,” “Coyote” references her relationship with Sam Shepard. The two met on the Rolling Thunder Revue, a concert tour put together by Bob Dylan. “Coyote” also reflected on the whole Rolling Thunder Revue experience, including the sex and drugs that were not only part of the tour, but had become a part of Mithcell’s life.

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‘Local Memory’ by Willie Nelson

Featured on both Nelson’s 1969 album “My Own Peculiar Way” and the career-changing 1973 album “Shotgun Willie,” “Local Memory” was actually written by Willie Nelson in 1964 and originally first released and recorded by Bobby Lewis in that same year. The rhythmic song sounds a bit different on each album, with a moodier rendition appearing on “Shotgun Willie.”

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‘Sawdust & Diamonds’ by Joanna Newsom

“Sawdust & Diamonds” is featured on Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album “Ys.” The simplistic song features Newsom’s vocals and her harp. Writing for The Stranger, Andy Beta says, “Within ‘Sawdust & Diamonds,’ the ornate cascades of harp strings accentuate certain aspects of ‘Ys’ so that they can more readily be gleaned: sparrows, falling rocks, breaking bones, the fragile flesh, and the unseen audience.”

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‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ by Odetta

The traditional African American spiritual song refers to the feelings of many motherless children during slavery. Odetta performed the song live on April 8, 1960, at Carnegie Hall, and it was released on the album “Odetta at Carnegie Hall” later that year. Many artists have also covered “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” including Van Morrison, Richie Havens, and Johnny Nash, and it was also featured in the soundtrack for the 1964 Pasolini film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”

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‘Return of the Grievous Angel #1’ by Gram Parsons

Writing for AV Club, Nathan Rabin called “Return of the Grievous Angel #1,” “a bittersweet love song about the open road that is dense with surrealistic imagery.” The song, featuring Emmylou Harris, was adapted from a poem by Thomas Brown and became the opening track on Parson’s final album “Grievous Angel.” The album was released after Parson’s death at 26 from a drug overdose.

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‘Chimacum Rain’ by Linda Perhacs

“Chimacum Rain” is the first track on Linda Perhacs’ 1970s album “Parallelograms,” which received little commercial success at the time, so Perhacs left the music industry and continued to work as a dental hygienist. The song referred to a place where the singer lived with her first husband and Perhacs has said, “The song is about the dilemma between your love for someone and your realization that there must be a parting.” The singer would not record another album until 2014 with the release of “The Soul of All Natural Things.”

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‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ by Peter, Paul and Mary

The song’s lyrics were based on a poem penned by Cornell University student Leonard Lipton, who was the housemate of Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary. While the meaning of the song has been hotly debated for years and was believed to be about drugs, Lipton told LA Weekly, “My poem was directly inspired by a poem called ‘A Tale of Custard the Dragon,’” published by Ogden Nash in 1936. “Pirates and dragons, back then, were common interests in stories for boys. The Puff story is really just a lot like Peter Pan.”

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‘Metal Heart’ by Cat Power

“Metal Heart” was originally released on Cat Power’s 1998 album “Moon Pix,” though it was reworked for Power’s 2008 album “Jukebox.” The song was written, along with several others on “Moon Pix,” during one strange night featuring a hallucination-filled nightmare. Writing for NPR, about “Metal Heart,” Lisa Lagace noted, “If there is one song that perfectly encapsulates the depression and fear [Chan] Marshall actively battles on Moon Pix—and has been exploring throughout the entirety of her career—this is it.”

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‘For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her’ by Simon & Garfunkel

From folk duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s third studio album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” the song is only sung by Garfunkel and references searching for a lover. “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” is much simpler than many of Simon & Garfunkel’s other songs, primarily consisting of various studio techniques including reverb and Simon playing a 12-string acoustic guitar.

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‘Love Makes a Woman’ by Phoebe Snow

A cover of Barbara Acklin’s “Love Makes a Woman,” Phoebe Snow recorded and released her version as the opening track on her 1977 album, “Never Letting Go.” The song spent seven weeks on the Billboard Hot R&B chart and peaked on Feb. 4, 1978. Writing for The New York Times, Stephen Holden called Snow, “A phenomenon unto herself.”

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‘Oh Very Young’ by Cat Stevens

Released on Cat Stevens’ 1974 album “Buddha and the Chocolate Box,” the melodious song spent 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #10. The lyrics speak about the brevity of youth and life and dreams, and Suzanne Lynch of the 1960s New Zealand band The Chicks can be heard on backing vocals. It was rumored that the song was a gentle response to Don McLean’s hit “American Pie,” though this has never been confirmed.

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‘Green, Green Rocky Road’ by Dave Van Ronk

Len Chandler and poet Robert Kaufman co-wrote “Green, Green Rocky Road,” based on a traditional folk song from “Negro Songs From Alabama,” collected by Harold Courlander. Dave Van Ronk sang his own version of the song in 1973, and it appeared in the ending credits of the Coen brother's 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” about the life of a folk singer.

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‘Colorado Girl’ by Townes Van Zandt

“Colorado Girl” was written by Townes Van Zandt and released on his self-titled album in 1969. It is about his journey to Colorado to find the woman he loved. Many believe it is about his first wife, Fran Petters, whom he married in August 1965. Petters was from Colorado and Van Zandt had spent time there, both living and attending school, and had a great fondness for the state, which can be heard in the singer/songwriter’s music.

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‘Small Blue Thing’ by Suzanne Vega

Released on her 1985 self-titled album, “Small Blue Thing” was not as popular or well-known as the other single from the album, “Marlene on the Wall.” It did find a spot on the U.K. Singles’ Chart, and though the meaning of the song has been open to interpretation, Vega told Rolling Stone that for a time, “I did not like being female, being a girl ... I wanted to be something other than that,” which is what she touched upon in “Small Blue Thing.”

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‘Revelator’ by Gillian Welch

“Revelator” is the opening track of Gillian Welch’s third studio album, “Time (The Revelator),” which was released in 2001. The song speaks of the changes that occur with time. The album was nominated for a 2001 Grammy for best contemporary folk album, and it also made it into the Billboard 200.

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‘75 Septembers’ by Cheryl Wheeler

Cheryl Wheeler wrote “75 Septembers” for her father’s birthday, and it was first released in 1993 on her album “Driving Home.” The song was one of three singles released from the album. Folk band Peter, Paul, and Mary have performed and recorded a cover of “75 Septembers.”

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‘Get Right With God’ by Lucinda Williams

From the 2001 album “Essence,” “Get Right With God” reveals Lucinda Williams’ connection to gospel music. The song won a 2001 Grammy award for best female rock vocal performance. Lucinda Williams spoke with Billboard and said of the song, “I am on a spiritual path. I am trying to get right with God,” and she emphasized that the song, “doesn’t have anything to do with any particular religion.”

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‘Harvest Moon’ by Neil Young

“Harvest Moon” is a touching and romantic tribute that artist Neil Young wrote to his wife, Pegi Young. Though the couple divorced in 2014, Young posted a touching tribute to her when she died in January 2019. The song comes from Young’s 1992 album of the same name and has been noted for its nostalgic sound, which came thanks to the use of ’70s-era analog equipment.

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