In college, I took a course called American Roots Music. One genre we discussed was folk music. A portion of the class had to give a presentation on any folk musician they wanted. Of the 15 or so people who presented, I kid you not, all but one of those students presented on either Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Woody Guthrie. Over and over again we had to listen to the same material – the same bullet points of life and career highlights that defined the significance of these three musicians. They each are, of course, great musicians. My fondness for folk music – and the fact that I presented in this genre for that class – led me to discover some really great, lesser-known folk musicians. When researching for my project, I wanted to make sure I found someone no one else would talk about. You’ll have to read the list to find out who I did my project on…
Paul Baribeau is placed at the ten position because he is the only contemporary folk musician on this list. His style might be described as folk-punk or anti-folk. If you know him, it is likely because of his friendship with the more popular Kimya Dawson. Aside from his relative obscurity, I think Paul belongs on this list because of the passion, pain, and sincerity that come through in his bare performances.
Above is a video of Paul, Paul’s beard, and Paul performing one of his fan favorite songs.
I’m still trying to get my hands on more of Patrick Sky’s music. Ironically, I found the easiest album of his to acquire was also his most controversial – Songs that Made America Famous. Patrick Sky was a contemporary of Bob Dylan in the Greenwich Village folk scene. He played with some other, better known musicians (including number 3 on this list). He became disillusioned with the music business and his politics became radical which led him to record the controversial and satirical 1973 album named above. Just take a look at some of the song titles off the album: “Vatican Caskets,” “Child Molestation Blues,” and “Our Baby Die.” He also, of course, had some great, non-controversial songs.
Above is one of the first Patrick Sky songs I heard. He is performing it on a short-lived television show called Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.
Sandy Denny was an English folk musician who, aside from a solo career, sang for the bands Fairport Convention, The Strawbs, and Fotheringay. She was also the only guest vocalist to appear on a Led Zeppelin studio album when she sang a duet with Robert Plant on the song “The Battle for Evermore.” Her best known song is perhaps “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” which has been covered by Judy Collins, Nina Simone, and Cat Power.
Denny had many substance abuse issues. She apparently drank and took cocaine while pregnant. A friend claimed that the child was premature and that Denny would crash her car and leave the baby in the pub and “all sorts of stuff.” She died at the age of 31 only a month after having suffered a fall down a staircase which resulted in her hitting her head against concrete.
During her lifetime, she only developed a cult-following. Posthumously, however, she has had a growing reputation. She has been called, “the pre-eminent British folk rock singer,” for instance. She might also be noted for having had a romantic involvement with the musician listed at number one on this list, whose songs she covered.
Peter La Farge was a Native American folk singer from the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s. He was also son to Pulitzer Prize winning author Oliver La Farge. Peter is perhaps best known for having an association with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. La Farge wrote a song, “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” about the then current violation of a Native American treaty with the building of Kinzua Dam on the land of the Seneca tribe. Dylan wrote the music to this song while La Farge wrote the lyrics. Dylan never recorded the song but he did perform it live at Carnegie Hall in 1962. La Farge recorded the song which was later covered by Johnny Cash on his Native American themed album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
Another one of La Farge’s best known songs is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” The song tells the story of the Pima Indian who was one of the five U.S. Marines to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima, but who when returning to the U.S. experienced prejudice and became an alcoholic. This song, too, was covered by Johnny Cash on the Bitter Tears album.
Although these are probably La Farge’s best known songs, he also recorded several songs about love, blues, and cowboys. What stands out to me about La Farge’s music is the way he often talks rather than sings on verses. The guitar also seems to take a backseat to his voice. Above is a video of Johnny Cash performing “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.
Linda Perhacs is regarded as a psych-folk singer. She has only ever released one album, Parallelograms. It was first released in 1970 with little commercial success. Discouraged with the lack of sales and poor promotion from her label, Perhacs returned to her job as a dental technician. Over the next 30 years, the album gained a cult following thanks in large part to the internet and young listeners who valued the subtle instrumentation and delicate harmonies.
It took Folk label Wild Places two years to locate Perhacs. Once they did, they used tapes from her personal collection to re-release the album with an improved sound quality and several previously unreleased demos and tracks. Her song “If You Were My Man” was featured in Daft Punk’s film Electroma. She also sang on the song “Freely” by Devendra Banhart.
Vashti Bunyan’s first album, Just Another Diamond Day, was written while traveling the English countryside in a horse drawn carriage with her partner. After the album’s poor sales, Vashti Bunyan abandoned her musical career until a rediscovery in the 2000s. Her resurgence is at least partly due to the interest contemporary musicians have had in her music. Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom are two such fans. She has even been featured in Banhart’s song, “Rejoicing in the Hands” as well as a few songs by Animal Collective. After a 35 year absence, her second album Lookaftering was finally released in 2005.
What stands out to me, is her unique and elegant voice and her simplistic lyrics. My favorite song is the rough sounding demo song “Winter is Blue” with its heartbreaking tone and lyrics.
Kath Bloom started to record music in 1976 when she met Loren MazzaCane Conners. Their collaboration and subsequently Kath Bloom’s musical recording ended in 1984 with the small release of their final album, Moonlight. Only 300 copies were pressed. A period of financial hardship followed for Bloom. As a single mother, she focused on raising her children instead of her music although she would sometimes play shows in her hometown of New Haven.
Luckily, like many of the artists on this list, Kath Bloom’s music has experienced a bit of a resurgence or rediscovery. Director Richard Linklater featured Bloom’s song “Come Here” in his film Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke. As a result, Bloom started writing music again. She recorded her first album in over ten years, Come Here: The Florida Years, in 1999. Since then, a tribute album was released with various artists covering Bloom’s songs, including covers by Devendra Banhart, Mark Kozelek, Bill Callahan, and The Dodos.
Her beautifully sad voice often accompanies simple folk melodies. I love the quivering emotion of her singing in the song “Come Here.” Every time I listen to it, I swear it must be the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. It is above, featured in a scene from Linklater’s great film Before Sunrise.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has quite the list of accomplishments: recorded songs later covered by Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Barbara Streisand, and Donovan, won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and was a cast member on Sesame Street. For those reasons, I assume she is the most well-known artist on this list. Yet whenever I’ve mentioned her to my musically-inclined friends, they have never heard the name before. While the term “obscure” might not apply to her, she is certainly a less-known and under-appreciated musician from the Greenwich Village scene. If you haven’t heard of this great Native American musician until now, you likely know at least one of her songs.
Perhaps you know her famous song “Up Where We Belong” recorded by Joe Cocker for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, for which she won an Oscar. Or her love song “Until It’s Time For You To Go” covered by the likes of Elvis Presley. Or her anti-war song of the 1960s, “Universal Soldier,” made popular by the English folk musician Donovan.
In my opinion, some of her best songs are also the ones least likely to ever broadcast over radio airwaves. These are her songs about Native American issues and concerns. “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” isn’t a catchy song you’ll ever get stuck in your head, but you just can’t beat the anger and bitterness that comes across in her shaky voice and passionate lyrics.
Above is a video clip of her performing that song on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest. I played the first half of this video during my college presentation.
Although a close friend of Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley never got much recognition himself in his lifetime. Some of his songs did become famous, but only when covered by others. Merle Haggard made “If I Could Only Fly” a hit. John Prine covered “Clay Pigeons,” Lyle Lovett covered “Election Day” and Lucinda Williams supposedly wrote her song “Drunken Angel” about him.
Blaze seemed to have everything against him in getting a studio album released. The master tapes of his first album were confiscated by the DEA when the executive producer was caught in a drug bust. Another album disappeared from the station wagon Foley lived in when it was broken into. His third studio album, Wanted More Dead Than Alive, was thought to be lost until after Blaze died and a friend found it while cleaning out his car. He does, thankfully, have a few live albums which still perfectly capture his beautiful, smooth voice and emotional lyrics.
A memoir written by one of Foley’s former lovers titled Living in the Woods in a Tree is a great source for learning more about this artist and his struggle to fulfill his dreams.
Jackson C. Frank belongs at the top of this list because of his tragically short career which seems undeserving given his incredible songwriting talent. Bert Jansch, leading figure of the 1960s’ British folk scene, referred to Jackson as, “an absolute genius.” He even credits Jackson with having a large influence on the music of that period and the songwriting of today. Jackson’s most popular song that no doubt influenced the folk musicians of that time is “Blues Run the Game.”
As a child, the furnace at Jackson’s school exploded killing several of his classmates and injuring him. While in the hospital, he learned to play the guitar. By the time he was sixteen, Jackson was playing covers in the States. But he heard that London was the place to be for folk music so he traveled there, eventually meeting and playing for Paul Simon. Simon offered to produce Jackson’s record, which would become Jackson’s first and only record – a self-titled release in 1965.
Sadly, after this initial release, Jackson struggled with money, writer’s block, and nervousness about performing. Years later, Jackson took off in search of his old friend, Paul Simon, only to end up homeless in New York. He was in and out of mental institutions and on various meds that left him bloated, dazed, and confused while continuing to live on the streets. A fan and friend of a friend named Jim Abbott found Jackson despite his lack of a resemblance to his old album cover. Jim helped Jackson find shelter and medical care. He sorted out a backlog of royalties and got Jackson a guitar so he could write songs again. His nineties career consisted of some home-recordings and open-mic work at coffee shops.
I love Jackson’s downbeat melancholia that feels as though it truly comes from a man who has lived through the emotional pain and defeat he sings about. I highly recommend the two-disc CD anthology Blues Run the Game which includes essentially everything Jackson ever recorded including several songs from the 1990s. His songs have been covered by Simon & Garfunkel, Counting Crows, John Mayer, Laura Marling, and Bert Jansch. They have also been featured in the films Electroma and Brown Bunny.
Above is Jackson’s song “Dialogue” as it appears in Daft Punk’s Electroma.