Tracy Chapman: Modern-day Folk Songstress

Written By: Mauranne Vernier

"Songwriting is a very mysterious process. It feels like creating something from nothing. It's something I don't feel like I really control."

Early Beginnings

Singer, songwriter and guitarist, Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. At an early age, she learned to sing, play the clarinet and organ, and compose simple songs that she sang with her sister, Aneta. She attended Tufts University, graduating with a B.A degree in Anthropology and African studies.


In 1988, she released her self – titled album. The album sold well, going multi-platinum and winning three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. The top singles were “Fast Car,” “Talkin ’bout a Revolution,” and “Baby Can I Hold You.”

Music Career

Chapman’s musical style is a mix of old and modern Folk music. The background instrumentals are limited, focusing really on Chapman’s acoustic guitar, and her vocals. Similar to The Railroad Worker’s “Camp.” And Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” Chapman’s musical style was very different from the music that was popular at that time. Artists like Janet Jackson, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bobby Brown were taking over. Many of her songs explored serious subjects—racism, the failed American dream, politics, and activism. This did not fit the format of commercial radio.

Her songs matched her personal life. Chapman was and still is a politically and socially active musician. In 1988, she performed in London as part of a worldwide concert tour to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Amnesty International. 

Her predecessors include Elizabeth “Libba” Cotton and Odetta. Both women were Black Women Folk singers. Similarly, Libba Cotten taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. Cotten developed a unique guitar style that became widely known as “Cotten style.” On the other hand, Odetta had a significant impact on a human rights activist. She used her lyrics to spark change in the civil rights era. She is often referred to as “The voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and “The Queen of American Folk Music.”

Tracy Chapman encompasses what Folk music is all about. Skilled musicianship and lyricism about issues that mattered to the people and brought people together as one. Which is why she is a modern-day folk songstress.

Live Performances

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