The best folk music books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about folk music and why they recommend each book.

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First Time Ever

By Peggy Seeger,

Book cover of First Time Ever: A Memoir

Not everyone who loves and admires this folk musician, the half-sister of Pete Seeger and a longtime collector of English folk ballads, knows her as the songwriter behind Roberta Flack’s hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face;” hence the title. The quirky style of this real page-turner provides fantastic stories of folk heritage, song collecting, love, child-rearing, radio performance activism, encounters with English Travelers, travels to China, and life growing up as a daughter of the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger.


Who am I?

My expertise as a scholar of the women’s music movement spans 40 years--ever since I attended my first concert and music festival in 1981. A lecturer at UC-Berkeley, I’m the author of 19 books on women’s history, and published the first book on women’s music festivals, Eden Built By Eves, in 1999 (now out of print.) More recently I’ve organized exhibits on the women’s music movement for the Library of Congress, co-authored The Feminist Revolution (which made Oprah’s list), and I’m now the archivist and historian for Olivia Records.


I wrote...

The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

By Bonnie Morris,

Book cover of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

What is my book about?

The Disappearing L offers an overview of the rise and fall of lesbian cultural spaces. What was the soundtrack of the feminist revolution? How did artists, producers, and fans create a vast network of women’s concerts, recording companies, and festivals that offered meaningful performance spaces for women coming out as lesbians—and performers too radical for the mainstream? The book examines how women’s bookstores, women’s studies programs, and other year-round institutions built spaces that included a music subculture—only to see independent venues vanish once LGBT rights and mainstreaming were attained. As women’s music spaces are disappearing, how will we remember them?

My Red Blood

By Alix Dobkin,

Book cover of My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement

The child of Communist parents, Alix would grow up to be one of the most profound movers and shakers of the lesbian music movement, producing the first full-length lesbian album, Lavender Jane Loves Women, in 1973. But this memoir is a series of chapters on her early years growing up in the 1950s with progressive activists and folk club life, embarking on her own career in the folk circuit, singing against the backdrop of repressive politics, and coming into the women’s movement as a married mother about to fall in love with another woman.


Who am I?

My expertise as a scholar of the women’s music movement spans 40 years--ever since I attended my first concert and music festival in 1981. A lecturer at UC-Berkeley, I’m the author of 19 books on women’s history, and published the first book on women’s music festivals, Eden Built By Eves, in 1999 (now out of print.) More recently I’ve organized exhibits on the women’s music movement for the Library of Congress, co-authored The Feminist Revolution (which made Oprah’s list), and I’m now the archivist and historian for Olivia Records.


I wrote...

The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

By Bonnie Morris,

Book cover of The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture

What is my book about?

The Disappearing L offers an overview of the rise and fall of lesbian cultural spaces. What was the soundtrack of the feminist revolution? How did artists, producers, and fans create a vast network of women’s concerts, recording companies, and festivals that offered meaningful performance spaces for women coming out as lesbians—and performers too radical for the mainstream? The book examines how women’s bookstores, women’s studies programs, and other year-round institutions built spaces that included a music subculture—only to see independent venues vanish once LGBT rights and mainstreaming were attained. As women’s music spaces are disappearing, how will we remember them?

Stand Up and Sing!

By Susanna Reich, Adam Gustavson (illustrator),

Book cover of Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice

Susanna is an award-winning writer of many picture book bios, but I have a special fondness for this one about Pete Seeger, a standout musician, activist, and human being. Adam Gustavson's marvelous acrylic paintings are a perfect backdrop for a beautifully-written text about a man who believed in the power of Music, and who dedicated his life to the cause of civil and social equality for all Americans. 


Who am I?

My prime credential for writing these books is my own humanity, as someone who's felt the deep power of music on the human spirit since childhood. The stories I tell in these books are about musicians and artists, people who had a passion for creating something out of thin air with patience and many years of hard work. I highlight their lives to give kids (and adults) examples of passion coupled with persistence because Life is often very challenging.


I wrote...

Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge

By Gary Golio, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge

What is my book about?

Sonny Rollins loved his saxophone. As a teenager, he was already playing with jazz stars and making a name for himself. But in 1959, at age twenty-nine, he took a break from performing—to work on being a better, not just famous, musician. Practicing in a city apartment didn’t please the neighbors, so Sonny found a surprising alternative—the Williamsburg Bridge. There, with his head in the clouds and foghorns for company, Sonny could play to his heart’s content and perfect his craft. It was a bold choice, for a bold young man and musician.

Sonny’s passion for music comes alive in jazzy text and vivid, evocative paintings of New York City. His story celebrates striving to be your very best self, an inspiration to music lovers young and old.

The Man Who Never Died

By William M. Adler,

Book cover of The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

I devoured this book on the recommendation of my friend Otis Gibbs, a songwriter with a particular interest in the great tradition of songs of, by, and for the working class. “Educate – Agitate – Organize,” reads the Joe Hill mural painted on the side of a rare books store in Salt Lake City, where the Wobbly songwriter was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1915. In The Man Who Never Died (2011), journalist William M. Adler contextualizes the vital importance of songs like Hill’s to the union movement, and he uncovers new details about the activist’s controversial conviction.

Who am I?

I’m the author of five books on subjects ranging from comedy and music to sports and pants (specifically, blue jeans). I’m a longtime Boston Globe contributor, a former San Francisco Chronicle staff critic, and a onetime editor for Rolling Stone. I help develop podcasts and other programming for Sirius and Pandora. I teach in the Journalism department at Emerson College, and I am the Program Director for the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival and the co-founder of Lit Crawl Boston.


I wrote...

Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

By James Sullivan,

Book cover of Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

What is my book about?

“Protest” music is largely perceived as an unsubtle art form, a topical brand of songwriting that preaches to the converted. But popular music of all types has long given listeners food for thought. Fifty years before Vietnam, before the United States entered World War I, some of the most popular sheet music in the country featured anti-war tunes. The labor movement of the early decades of the century was fueled by its communal “songbook.” The Civil Rights movement was soundtracked not just by the gorgeous melodies of “Strange Fruit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but hundreds of other gospel-tinged ballads and blues.

My book is an anecdotal history of the progressive movements that have shaped the growth of the United States and the songs of all genres that have accompanied and defined them.

The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night

By Peter Spier,

Book cover of The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night

This old classic still holds its charm. Sing along all the way and enjoy the autumn farmland illustrations as a fox runs through a tobacco barn and across the moonlit countryside bringing the farmer’s grey goose back to his young ones for dinner. Spoiler alert, they do pick the bones clean.  


Who am I?

As a Children’s Librarian for over 30 years, my passion has been for the sound of language. I want children to hear rhythmic, joyful language that will make them fall in love with words. My own career as a storyteller and author continues this same love of language. I try to write my own picture books in such a way that any adult who picks them up will read them out with the same kind of verve and joy that I put into them.  



I wrote...

Pickin' Peas

By Margaret Read MacDonald, Pat Cummings (illustrator),

Book cover of Pickin' Peas

What is my book about?

“Pickin’ Peas! Put ‘em in my pail!” Little Girl sings in her garden. But Mr. Rabbit wants those peas too.  “Pickin’ Peas! Landin’ on my knees!” he jumps along behind her. Be sure your listeners sing along with them as they duel over those peas. This Alabama folktale always leaves my listeners going out the door singing.   

For more singing tales see Conejito!, Mabela the Clever, Tuck-Me-In Tales, Farmyard Jamboree, The Old Woman and Her Pig, and The Wishing Foxes also by Margaret Read MacDonald.  

By Rowan and Yew

By Melissa Harrison,

Book cover of By Rowan and Yew

This book is a new find for me and I loved it.

It’s about a group of ‘Hidden People’ who are trying to find their way back home. Hidden People are tiny folk who most humans can’t see but who can be seen by some children – children aware of the world of nature around them. Hidden People are guardians of the Wild World, the world of nature and animals and birds and the like.

This delightful and informative book has a strong message about protecting the world around us. I was enchanted by the story of the, sometimes scary, adventures that these tiny people experienced on their journey back home and I’m sure you will be too.


Who am I?

I’m a writer from England and have always been fascinated by history and mythology, nature and wildlife. These interests were instilled in me from earlier than I can remember. As a child we would visit historic sites like castles or standing stones, or nature watch while walking the beautiful British countryside. I’ve continued to share my enthusiasm for history by helping lead a Young Archaeology Club and still take long walks in the countryside with family or friends. As a fantasy writer I’ve been able to bring those themes together in a whole different and magical way, to make them fun and exciting for readers to learn and enjoy.


I wrote...

The Harp of Elvyth

By Debbie Daley,

Book cover of The Harp of Elvyth

What is my book about?

In Earth's parallel Mystic world, trouble is brewing in Elvedom. Evil Duke Eldorth has stolen four sacred relics from elven King Elfred. In the Human world, Lizzie Longton lives with her grandmother. Lizzie’s always known that she's unlike other kids, but, apart from her strangely shaped ears, she doesn't understand why.

On her 11th birthday, Lizzie’s surprised to learn she’s won a holiday to a mystery hotel. Upon arrival, she and her grandmother find the holiday isn’t what it claims. Instead, they have arrived in a place they believed only existed in fairy stories. Lizzie finally discovers the truth about her heritage and why she's so different. Together with her newly made friends, her adventures challenge her to fight her demons in both her worlds.

The Folk of the Air

By Holly Black,

Book cover of The Folk of the Air

Holly Black is a master of the fae tale. Much has been said about this trilogy already but I assure you, the praise is well-deserved. Each book has a tight and dynamic plot, prose that fairly flies off the page, and a conclusion that is very satisfying. The first book was almost deceptive in the way it presented a not-very-strong protagonist until she evolves and becomes so much more than the reader thinks her to be. It’s the best kind of fictional surprise.


Who am I?

Many kids love fairy tales and so did I but I was always puzzled by the lack of fairies in these tales. The idea of a separate world containing these beautiful but flawed creatures enthralled me from an early age. I read everything about them so that I could get my hands on, whether the book was fiction or nonfiction. When doing my Master's in Children’s Literature, I studied fae tales that appear around the world which evoked a thirst in me to write my own…so I did. All the books on this list give a glimpse of the chaotic nature of the fae, of the world that surely exists beyond our comprehension. I hope they are as much a treat for your imagination as they were mine.


I wrote...

Road of the Lost

By Nafiza Azad,

Book cover of Road of the Lost

What is my book about?

Croi is a brownie, glamoured to be invisible to humans. Her life in the Wilde Forest is ordinary and her magic is weak—until the day that her guardian gives Croi a book about magick from the Otherworld, the world of the Higher Fae. Croi wakes the next morning with something pulling at her core, summoning her to the Otherworld. It’s a spell she cannot control or break.

Forced to leave her home, Croi begins a journey full of surprises…and dangers. For Croi is not a brownie at all but another creature entirely, enchanted to forget her true heritage. As Croi ventures beyond the forest, her brownie glamour begins to shift and change. Who is she really, who is summoning her, and what do they want? 

Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

By W.B. Yeats,

Book cover of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

Yeats, a mystic poet, travelled across Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, asking country people if they’d ever seen fairies and taking down their stories. “I believe when I am in the mood that all nature is full of people whom we cannot see,” he wrote in an earlier book, The Celtic Twilight. “Even when I was a boy I could never walk in a wood without feeling that at any moment I might find before me somebody or something I had long looked for without knowing….” Yates believed the songs and stories "handed down among the cottages” were “Folk art [which]… because it has gathered into itself the simplest and most unforgettable thoughts of the generations… is the soil where all great art is rooted.”  His own poetry bears this out. 


Who am I?

Mary Losure is the author of The Fairy Ring, or Elsie and Frances Fool the World. Though she doesn’t happen to believe in fairies herself, when she went to Cottingley, England, and explained that she was writing a children’s book about the girls who took the Cottingley Fairy Photographs, she met a surprisingly large number of people who did.  Plus, she’s always been interested in imaginary worlds. Her most recent book, Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d, is the story of a magic-seeking boy who grew up to become the world’s greatest alchemist. Oh, and also discovered the secrets of the universe….


I wrote...

The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World

By Mary Losure,

Book cover of The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World

What is my book about?

Elsie and Frances never meant to fool the world. How were they supposed to know the “fairy” photographs they’d taken would one day fall into the hands of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? (Who—unbeknownst to them—believed in fairies?) And what should they do when that famous and powerful author, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, began telling all of England that the so-called Cottingley Fairy Photographs must be real, for how could two young village girls be smart enough to fake them? Nonfiction, ages 10 and up.

Jokerman

By Aidan Day,

Book cover of Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan

Not the best-known Dylan book but Jokerman is unusually productive in its scholarly analysis of many of the Nobel Laurette’s revered lyrics. Investigating the writer’s use of ‘Identity’ in his work happens to coincide with 20 of his best known and most loved songs. At one level this might be seen as a book for anoraks, but it is much more and likely to be of interest to anyone inclined to seek answers to questions raised in the apparent opacity of these Dylan classics.

Who am I?

At the age of 23 I brought Bob Dylan to the Isle of Wight to play the 1969 festival. In my naivety when making the bid I knew nothing about the sixties superstar but by the time he accepted the invitation I had soaked up all that was generally known of his music and backstory. Through the decades since I have closely followed Dylan’s remarkable career and written about his indispensable place in the counterculture. I am an architect and author working in Oxford.


I wrote...

Stealing Bob Dylan from Woodstock: When the World Came to the Isle of Wight. Volume 1

By Ray Foulk, Caroline Foulk,

Book cover of Stealing Bob Dylan from Woodstock: When the World Came to the Isle of Wight. Volume 1

What is my book about?

As well as the background to the festival and the event itself, Stealing Dylan from Woodstock also explores the artist’s career through a period in which the Isle of Wight was the only pre-scheduled or full concert he performed in seven-and-a-half years. This critical period was a major transition in his life and work, during which he was resident in Woodstock, working with the Band, until, to his chagrin, the eponymous festival was put in his backyard, and from which he departed for England to play his own festival.

The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

By Bill Blackbeard (editor), Martin Williams (editor),

Book cover of The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics

Bill Blackbeard was the Harry Smith of comics. Just as Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music helped launch a folk music revival, so did Blackbeard’s massive volume of old newspaper comics spark a new generation of comics fandom and scholarship. This was also the first book of old newspaper funnies I ever read, during a childhood Saturday afternoon in the Willard Library in Evansville, Indiana, when I discovered the magical “741.5” shelf that held books of comics. Other big, beautiful anthologies of old newspaper funnies have been compiled by comics creators like Jerry Robinson and Brian Walker, but Blackbeard is the granddaddy.


Who am I?

I was walking across the country in 1986 when I met a journalist named Mike Sager who showed me that writing can also be an adventure. Since then, I’ve edited an alternative weekly newspaper and written books about zydeco, Hurricane Katrina, comics, and old Kodachrome photos. So far, most everything I write seems to be centered in some way around my adopted home state of Louisiana, a place that never seems to run out of stories. Also, I still like to walk.


I wrote...

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White

By Michael Tisserand,

Book cover of Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White

What is my book about?

In 2007, living in the Midwest following the New Orleans floods, I attended the Masters of American Comics exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. When I walked into a room filled with George Herriman’s original, hand-drawn pages of his masterpiece “Krazy Kat,” I immediately knew I had to learn everything there was to know about this amazing, inscrutable cartoonist and New Orleans exile. Ten years of research later, I published the first full-length biography of Herriman, revealing the story of his precarious position on the American color line and especially the transcendent “Krazy Kat,” in which Herriman created art from a personal history that could not be spoken out loud.

Krazy was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and won the Eisner Award for best book about comics, and has been optioned by filmmaker Jonathan Hock for a documentary.

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