10 Black Female Folk Singers of the 60s You Will LOVE

Discover the Black Female Folk Singers of the 60s That Were Amazing!

The black female folk singers of the 60s that were amazing decades ago are the following legendary names: Ella Jenkins, Bessie Jones, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Odetta, Dorris Henderson, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, Mavis Staples, Nina Simone and Elizabeth Cotten.  But why were these ladies so great?  What made them pioneers in the music industry?  Well, let’s dive into each artist individually to find out what made each singer so legendary!

Best Black Female Folk Singers of the 60s

Let’s begin with Ella Jenkins.

1. Ella Jenkins

Living legend Ella Jenkins began her ethnomusicology career a child, absorbing the musical traditions of friends from different backgrounds. After receiving a degree in sociology and child psychology, she began writing children’s songs and touring the U.S. Her 1966 recording with the Urban Gateways Children’s Chorus, You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song is still used by early education teachers today to promote creative thinking and independence. 

Jenkins plays more than 50 instruments, and sings and composes songs in many languages, including French, Arabic and Swahili. The First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song has appeared in episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Barney & Friends and was a 2004 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

  • My Favorite Ella Jenkins Song: “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” from Adventures In Rhythm (1959). This version of the classic folk medley (which includes excerpts from “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah”) is so embedded in my childhood memory that I cannot hear it without having a sudden an impulse to reach for a crayon.

2. Bessie Jones

Another singer who worked hard to preserve Black folk music in education was Bessie Jones. Born in 1902, Jones retained songs, games and stories that she had learned in her childhood. In the 1960s, Jones began touring the U.S., performing with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, offering Black folk music workshops to children and adults. Jones also recorded several songs for ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Electronica artist Moby’s 1998 single “Honey” used a sample of Jones’s “Sometimes”.

  • My Favorite Bessie Jones Song: “Shoo Turkey” from So Glad I’m Here (1975). This lively, intimate recording puts Jones right in the room with me as we field holler out to “Miss Luuucy”.

3. Bernice Johnson Reagon

As a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, Bernice Johnson Reagon was, and continues to be, an important voice of the civil rights movement. In 1962, The Freedom Singers became the first civil rights singing group to organize a national tour, visiting churches and college campuses, and leading community groups in spirituals and songs of protest. 

Led by Reagon’s deep alto voice and a strong belief that music helped people overcome their differences, the group broke down many barriers in a segregated America. In 1965 Reagon released her debut album Folk Songs: The South, and in 1973 she founded the electric a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.

  • My Favorite Bernice Johnson Reagon Song: “Drinking of the Wine” from Folk Songs: The South (1965). Reagon’s voice goes straight to my soul on this, the finest track on this album of divine a cappella songs. 

4. Odetta

Originally trained as an opera singer, Odetta spent a few years in the world of musical theatre before settling on a career in folk music in 1950. With a voice as heavy as a train (“Troubled”) or light as a feather (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), Odetta brought folk music to its feet with her 1963 release Odetta Sings Folk Songs

Martin Luther King Jr. considered Odetta the queen of American folk music, and her historic performance at 1963’s March on Washington led to her being crowned, “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”. Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin are among some of the artists who claimed Odetta as an influence. 

  • My Favorite Odetta Song: “Shenandoah” from Odetta Sings Folk Songs (1963). Odetta’s operatic training shines on this dreamlike version of the 19th century folk song, a perfect tune for a sad western film’s end credits.

5. Dorris Henderson

Civil servant Dorris Henderson took up music after seeing Odetta in concert. She got her start performing versions of folk songs that had been unearthed by Alan Lomax’s research. After honing her chops in Greenwich Village alongside Paul Simon and Fred Neil, Henderson moved to England, and embarked upon a briefing varied music career. 

She released two albums with guitarist/songwriter John Renbourn, toured the Netherlands, and formed a rock band with future King Crimson founder, Ian McDonald. Henderson retired from music for nearly 30 years before releasing her final album, 2003’s Here I Go Again.

  • My Favorite Dorris Henderson Song: “No More My Lord” from Watch the Stars (1967). Henderson’s voice is a powerful, soulful mix of jazz and blues, as if Marilyn McCoo were channeling Mahalia Jackson.

6. Miriam Makeba

South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba championed folk music traditions until the day she died. Makeba’s career began rooted in the kwela and marabi music traditions, and released her first single “Lovely Lies” at age 24. Her appearance in the 1959 South African musical King Kong propelled her to stardom, and she soon began touring internationally. While abroad she often spoke out against apartheid, which lead to her passport being revoked, and her music being banned in South Africa. 

In addition to English, Makeba sang in Swahili, Sotho and Xhosa, the language featured in 1967’s “Pata Pata.” The song, inspired by a popular Johannesburg dance, was the first international top-10 hit recorded by a black woman. At a 2008 concert in Italy, Makeba suffered a heart attack after singing the song, and never regained consciousness.

  • My Favorite Miriam Makeba Song: “The Retreat Song (Jikele Maweni)” from Miriam Makeba (1960). Makeba’s performance of this song on Paul Simon: Graceland – The African Concert left me utterly spellbound as a child.

7. Celia Cruz

Larger-than-life Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz began her career in 1950 with a splash, becoming the first black woman vocalist for the popular orchestra Sonora Matancera. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1960, Cruz went into exile, eventually settling in the U.S. Like Miriam Makeba, Cruz was banned from returning to her native country. 

Her 1966 hit “Bemba colorá” gifted the world of salsa music the famous catchphrase “Azúcar!” For over 50 years, Cruz kept the Afro-Cuban musical traditions alive, releasing over 40 albums, winning multiple Grammys (including a 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award) and earning the title, “the Queen of Salsa”.

  • My Favorite Celia Cruz Song: “Changó” from Sabor y Ritmo de Pueblos (1964). This rhythmically hypnotic call and response tune is led by Cruz’s dynamic, expressive vocals.

8. Mavis Staples (The Staple Singers)

Gospel folk pioneers The Staple Singers scored their first hit in 1956 with “Uncloudy Day”. When the youngest sibling of the group, singer Mavis Staples, graduated from high school, the family took their act on the road, launching a career that would endure for more than 40 years. 

In addition to early gospel songs and 70s hits like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” the group recorded many folk classics during the 1960s, including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “If I Had a Hammer.” Mavis’s gravelly contralto voice stood out on many of the group’s hits, and so inspired a young Bob Dylan, that he more than once asked for her hand in marriage.

  • My Favorite Mavis Staples (The Staple Singers) Song: “Are You Sure” from For What It’s Worth / Are You Sure (1967). Mavis is fine form on this reworking of the Ike Cargill tune, and the arrangement and harmonies are gospel groovy.

9. Nina Simone

Nina Simone crossed over into many genres of music.  But in some ways, Simone sat at the intersection of folk music and classical arrangements. With a unique voice and immeasurable talent, the phenomenal interpreter breathed new life into forgotten songs of the past, and inspired a brand of activism not content with passivism. 

Simone’s take on Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” became a standard of the civil rights movement, and The Village Voice’s Thulani Davis described Simone’s “Four Women” as “an anthem affirming (African-American women’s) existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine.” 

Few artists of any era have known how to transmit pain, defiance, beauty and victory through their instrument or voice quite like The High Priestess of Soul.

  • My Favorite Nina Simone Song: “Li’l Liza Jane” from Nina Simone at Newport  (1960). When Simone asks “Where’s my tambourine?” at the beginning of this spirited take on this 19th century slave song, you know you’re in for a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time.

10. Elizabeth Cotten

Composer and virtuoso guitarist Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was truly a folk music legend. The self-taught left-handed guitarist developed her own style of playing known as “Cotten picking,” and wrote dozens of songs before giving up music to raise a family at age 17. Cotten returned to music some 40 years later when her “Freight Train” was appropriated during the American and British folk revivals of the 60s. 

In 1985, at the age of 90, Cotten received a Grammy Award for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live!, and was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.

  • My Favorite Elizabeth Cotten Song: “When I’m Gone” from Volume 3: When I’m Gone (1979). Cotten’s intricate picking and laid open voice singing lines like “My friends, I know you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” make me feel she’s taking a certain delight in death.

Standing Ovation

Black female folk singers of the 60s are often absent from discussions of the folk music revival during that era. This list aims to correct that erasure by highlighting some of the women who contributed to the genre. A special shoutout deserves to go out to all of the countless other artists whose work in the field of folk music isn’t as widely known, but should never be forgotten.

This article was written by Amelia and edited by Michael.

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