Folk Rock Music History

Kevin Ott
Backpacker with guitar

When American folk music donned a killer backbeat and absorbed American rock and roll into its sound, it produced a new genre of music and a powerful moment in American culture that would define a generation and set the tone for decades of music to come. Like the history of all musical genres, the exact starting point of folk rock is unclear, though it begins earlier than the casual fan might realize.

A Timeline of Folk Rock Music History

On the surface, folk rock music is easy to define. It is a mix of two previous genres, traditional folk music and rock and roll, that blended organically in the twentieth century American and British music scenes. However, folk is a broad term. It includes many traditional, regional forms of music, and it readily permits spillover from other genres. The best way to get a sense of folk rock music is to survey its evolution and history.

Traditional American Folk Music

The genesis of folk rock begins well before the "rock and roll" half of the equation. It begins with America's traditional folk music, an older genre than people realize that came to prominence alongside the early country artists.

acoustic guitar
  • 1927 - Jimmie Rodgers, known as the "Father of Country Music," and who also had a significant influence on early folk music, releases "Blue Yodel" (later known as "T For Texas"), which sells over half a million copies and propels him to stardom.
  • 1930 - Folk singer Woodie Guthrie, whose music would later be a huge influence on Bob Dylan, forms his first band, The Corncob Trio.
  • 1940 - Guthrie writes the legendary folk song This Land Is Your Land and records "Dust Bowl Ballads" for RCA Victor.
  • 1941 - Guthrie writes the autobiography "Bound for Glory," which would also capture Bob Dylan's imagination and shape his desire to write folk music and address social issues.
  • 1945 - Susan Reed, one of the most influential folk singers of her time besides Guthrie, performs at New York's Town Hall, which launches her acclaimed national tour. Although her career was brief, she was an important trailblazer for later folk stars such as Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.
  • 1948 - Folk singer Pete Seeger forms The Weavers, a folk group that would sell four million records in three years with help from their chart-topping hit "Goodnight, Irene." Many of the folk rock groups of the 1960s would cover Seeger's songs.
  • 1956 - Actor and folk singer Harry Belafonte releases "Calypso," a folk album with Caribbean influences, and it becomes the first album to sell one million copies.
  • 1958 - The Kingston Trio releases their first album, self-titled The Kingston Trio, which propels their fresh folk sound into the charts and plants seeds for the folk revival that would come in the 1960s.
  • 1960 - Joan Baez debuts at the famous Newport Folk Festival and releases her debut album for Vanguard Recording Society, and it becomes a smash-hit.
  • 1963 - Bob Dylan releases his second album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which would be regarded as his first classic work and one of the greatest albums of all time.

While these artists do not represent the sum total of all those who contributed to the genre, their careers show how traditional folk music exploded into the American mainstream consciousness by the early sixties.

The British Invasion Begins

American music would not dictate its own course, however. British culture, which had been feeding heavily off of classic American rock and roll of the fifties and transforming it into its own creation, blindsided American folk music with the British Invasion.

  • 1963 - The Beatles release their first U.S. single, Please Please Me, to stunning success.
  • 1964 - The Beatles arrive in America for the first time when they land in New York City on February 7. It marks the beginning of the invasion: Other British rock bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, and the Who begin pouring into the U.S., and Americans, including folk artists, take a renewed interest in rock and roll.
  • 1965 - The Rolling Stones release "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" in the U.S., and it soars in the charts and helps cement the British Invasion.

As the Brits keep pouring in, folk music gains momentum. It's not long before folk's biggest names jump into the fresh vision of rock and roll--thus birthing folk rock.

The Significance of 1965: Mainstream Folk Music Goes Electric

1965 was one of the most significant years in the history of folk rock, and in popular music for that matter. As music historian and author Andrew Grant Jackson writes in his book 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music: "1965 is the moment in rock history when the Technicolor butterfly burst out of its black-and-white cocoon."

It began in part with The Byrds and their innovative sound. In June of 1965, music critics coined the term folk rock to describe The Byrds' debut album, which took folk songs and electrified them in a rock band context.

  • June 1965 - The Byrds release their self-titled debut album. Their version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," which was written by Bob Dylan, is sometimes credited as being the first folk rock song.
  • July 1965 - Bob Dylan, at the Newport Folk Festival, causes a controversy when he plays his set electrified with a backing band, a set that includes his legendary folk rock hit "Like A Rolling Stone."
  • July 1965 - Barry McGuire releases his folk rock hit Eve of Destruction, which would become known as a classic protest song.
  • December 1965 - The Beatles release Rubber Soul, which features a distinct folk-influenced sound - one of the first hugely successful folk rock albums.

Despite the success of "Rubber Soul" or Dylan's infamous turn to electric, The Byrds would retain the title as the poster boys of folk rock. They opened the floodgates of folk rock on both sides of the pond.

Folk Rock Matures and Diversifies

As the 1960s progressed, the genre evolved, and a divide began to grow between U.S. folk rock and British folk rock. In the U.S., folk rock became heavily intertwined with the anti-war movement. Folk rock musicians continued to mine traditional folk music for ideas, but they also penned new songs addressing the war and the cultural divide in the U.S.

  • 1966 - The Mamas & The Papas release "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin'" on their landmark album "If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears," and they become known as "sunshine pop," a vocal harmony-centered genre that is one of the first offshoots of folk rock.
  • 1967 - Jefferson Airplane releases "Somebody To Love" and would become the first hugely successful band of psychedelic rock, a San Francisco hippie-influenced offshoot of folk rock.
  • 1967 - Buffalo Springfield releases its biggest hit "For What It's Worth" and breaks ground for a subgenre of folk rock known as country rock, which would be one of many offshoots to come from folk rock.

As the sixties turned into the seventies, the folk rock genre continued to diversify into offshoots until it could claim responsibility for birthing most of what the world considers classic rock.

Folk Rock Still Going Strong and Influencing Music Today

Folk rock music history hasn't really ended, but rather, the genre has seeped into the foundations of all other genres. With the vast singer-songwriter scene, folk rock-influenced albums from pop superstars like Lady Gaga, and hip-hop's link to Bob Dylan, the folk rock genre continues to shape music today.

Folk Rock Music History