The 26 Best Folk & Blues Songs to Get You in The ‘Last of Us’ Mood
"Just like anything, to sing is a state of mind."
In the latest trailer for HBO’s television rendition of The Last of Us, you may have noticed that the song that played seemed a bit esoteric for a show based on a video game. It was Hank Williams’ “Alone And Forsaken,” and as a dedicated folk & blues fan (I ran a radio show for the genre, for chrissakes), it makes total sense to me that they’d go with this genre for this kind of story.
Folk-blues (we’ll just join ’em together for brevity’s sake) are two of those genres that people tend to shy away from since they can be a little morose. But it’s for that reason that this choice was a perfect one for a story like The Last of Us. Folk-blues songs are dark, moody, and raw; when part of a film’s soundtrack, they force you to be grounded in the gritty present, for better and for worse. It’s why Inside Llewyn Davis‘ tone was so heavy and melancholic, and why True Detective used songs from the likes of Vashti Bunyan.
I love these genres and I think more shows should utilize them. On that note: here are some artists that I think you should listen to, to get even more hyped for The Last Of Us.
Dave Van Ronk
Dave is a legend, short and simple. He was the inspiration behind Inside Llewyn Davis’ story, and he also joined the Stonewall Uprising just because he was down for some anti-cop action. There’s a distinct sense of pain, wisdom, and richness in his voice and storytelling, and it’s unfortunate that his creative genius and communal sacrifices weren’t recognized during his time.
As can be seen in both of these songs, his voice always carries a strength to it, even when his guitar playing is relatively soft. The dichotomy is incredible, spine-chilling.
Jackson C. Frank
Jackson was, in the same vein as Dave, one of those early-folk heroes whose life stories almost run parallel to the sorts of songs they write. He’s a gentler singer, to be sure, and his songs remind me less of trudging down a dirt road than riding a boat towards nowhere. Ultimately, though, both lead to the same place.
This song, “Blues Run The Game,” is iconic within folk. If you’re at all interested in learning more about this genre, you’ll definitely run into multiple iterations of this song.
Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt is so near and dear to my heart, I don’t even have the right words to describe his impact as a musician. I suppose, all I can say is that the above cover of “You Are My Sunshine” is the only one I’ll listen to. I hope to play it for my kids, someday.
Of course, no folk-blues artist would be complete without an ambling story of a villainous sort, and “Stagolee” is legendary in that regard. Couldn’t you see Joel driving Ellie around to this song?
Elizabeth Cotten is regarded as the “founder” of the fingerpicking style that became popular amongst folk artists, and for that, we thank you ma’am, because fingerpicking is fun, hypnotic, and essential to pretty much any good folk song. She’s younger in this recording; in most recordings you can find online, she’s already quite a bit older. But the soul and the spirit are still there.
They say that in order to become the blues legend he wanted to be, Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil. The devil approached him at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation, then tuned his guitar and played a few songs. Impressed, Johnson asked what he could do for the devil to grant him his wish, and the devil asked for his soul.
It’s a high bit of fantasy, sure, one that masks a troubled and painful life. But the fact that it’s so well-known speaks to how legendary Robert Johnson truly is. It’s not a stretch to say that without him, the blues wouldn’t have become what it is today.
Might seem underwhelming to follow up that with John Lennon, who a lot of people in my demographic tend to hate on. I guess I’m a sucker, because even knowing the things he’s done, I can’t help but enjoy his post-Beatles work the best. He got really experimental with different genres and leaned into the grittiness of them, especially with the blues.
“Well Well Well” is a perfect example of this. I wish I could find a good copy of the demo track of this song, because it’s even creepier sounding, but this one is still pretty badass on its own. I really think it could fit into the story of TLOU quite well.
The aforementioned Vashti Bunyan was somewhat of a folk darling during the UK folk scene in the 60s and 70s, known for her soft voice and sweet melodies. But True Detective used this song for a reason. It’s creepy and foreboding, making it very easy to imagine yourself on a train rolling through fog, with no solid destination in sight.
She has some other songs that match this tune, too, but none are quite as dark as this one. Well, maybe “Pink Sugar Elephants,” but that’s only because it’s melodically the exact same song.
Actually, I take it back. “Pink Sugar Elephants” is creepier.
Now, that soft darkness that Vashti only sometimes tapped into is what Sibylle Baier is known for. She only produced this one album, but it’s one of the most exceptionally dark, gorgeous folk albums from this entire era. “Softly,” while not its most popular track, certainly exemplifies this mood the most (and is therefore my personal favorite). I think the mood is only exacerbated by how mysterious Sibylle is in life.
Imagine driving through the zombie apocalypse with this song playing at night. Utter chills.
Now, we’re starting to get a little more modern, but for good reason. Diane Cluck is considered the leader of the “freak-folk” movement—one of those mid-90s, early 2000s movements that tried to shake up the folk scene as it was ostensibly dying. Freak Folk was more experimental and psychedelic, but what made Diane’s work so unique within it was her relationship to Americana and folklore.
The first time I heard “Sara,” it was on her NPR Tiny Desk performance, and it made me stop what I was doing and just sit and absorb it. It feels less like a song, and more like a spell that’s being cast on you. Spooky.
Admittedly, I’m not as familiar with Karen Dalton, but I’ve heard her many times over the years and am always floored by how bombastic her sounds are. From her voice to her instrumentality, Karen leaves an impression, and an image of a vagabondish woman who’s finding her own way through it. I can see Ellie vibing to that notion.
John Fahey is mostly known for his instrumentality, and he normally fingerpicks entire songs without singing. Which is to say, he’s perfect soundtrack material. Of course, I say this with the irony of being unable to listen to his songs for long periods of time because they naturally make me feel very nostalgic.
But, I suppose, in that vein: if you’re going on a road trip any time soon, you’d be wise to play some Fahey.
José Gonzalez is one of my favorite musicians of all time, even though he tends to get a bad rap within more “Pitchfork-y” communities. He tends to stick with the same sort of tone with most of his albums, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Something about the way José composes the entirety of his tracks makes you reminiscent of the woods, or someplace real and visceral, and there’s some real magic to being capable of conjuring such feelings through such soft, simple songs.
Then again, who am I kidding, I found him through Red Dead Redemption. Proof that he fits in, here.
Sun Kil Moon
I feel a little tepid about including Sun Kil Moon, since he’s been accused of some pretty heinous things and hasn’t really been held accountable for them. Therefore, I’ll keep it brief: nobody has a sound like Mark Kozelek, and even if he tends to ramble in his songs, each song has a path and a journey to it that makes you feel nervous, springs loaded, in a good way.
I’ve specifically featured “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” because it always struck me as a good song for a chase scene in a thriller. But he does prettier songs, too. “Alesund” comes to mind.
He’s just a good ol’ Texan boy, just like Joel! I could totally see this kind of song being played in Tommy’s camp.
Seriously though, Shakey went from a Bandcamp Original to a frontliner for SXSW. He’s fondly cemented himself in modern Americana, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like a lot of people my age, my proper introduction to folk was through Nick Drake. It’s difficult to talk about him at any great length, because he was one of those profoundly talented people who unfortunately left us before he really had a chance to grow into himself. There’s a darkness to some of his songs that bely a person who felt deeply, and intensely; I’ve always felt that these two songs conveyed that the most.
Beck, “One Foot In The Grave”
Yeah, yeah, it’s the “Loser” guy, but did you know he started off as a folk singer? I mentioned earlier that Diane toed the line of the Freak Folk movement. Well, Beck was in and around those offshoot folk movements, too, and found them imminently frustrating to be around. Intolerable, really. That’s where a lot of the enervation behind this album comes from.
It’s just a damn good album that fits this list perfectly. I’m sure Beck thinks differently, but in my opinion, this (and “Mellow Gold”) was where he peaked.
As we wind down this list, we get to the folk and blues singers who really shaped the genres into what they are today. Lead Belly was perhaps one of the most influential leaders of the movement, as he can be cited as a primary inspiration behind artists like Kurt Cobain and Bob Dylan.
Sure, his recordings are a little raw by today’s standards, but that’s what the whole early movement was all about. Too pretty, and you lose the spark.
Ha. Y’all know Joel would have something like this playing in the back of his mind while doing his thing.
Nobody does it like Lightnin’ Hopkins. On your next sunny Saturday, you should wake up, make some black coffee, and listen to him while sitting outside.
Oh, we had to finish on Pete, what the hell did you think we were gonna do? Listen to Pete Seeger, support your local unions, join a union if you can, and get your ass ready for more folk and blues soundtracks on the horizon.
Believe it or not, yes, I did have more I wanted to add to this list (like Bert Jansch and Buffy Sainte-Marie), and yes, I did quite easily run out of space. I encourage you to leave your own recommendations in the comments.
(Featured Image: Naughty Dog)
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