Maybe it is the turbulent political time in which we live. Or maybe it's the fact that millions of the children of the '60s are rediscovering the powerful impact of contemporary folk music on their social conscience.

Whatever the reason, it seems America is rediscovering folk music. And once again, it is the female artists that are leading the charge.During the 1960s, America found its conscience through the insightful renditions of female singers and songwriters like Mary Travers, Joan Baez, Mama Cass Elliot and Joni Mitchell. They all possessed that uncanny ability to blend traditional folk sounds with emerging trends in popular music.

And they captivated an entire generation in the process.

Even 20-plus years later, they remain the standard against which all female "folk" artists are judged. It is a heavy standard that few have measured up to.

A new class of artists is on the rise - artists that are inevitably compared to their predecessors but which compare most favorably. All represent a new generation of songwriters with new concerns, new dreams and new hopes for a troubled world.

Leading the way are new female folk artists Eliza Gilkyson, Jane Siberry and Michelle Shocked.

Of all the new artists, Eliza Gilkyson is the one that most evokes the images of the 1960s. Her Joni Mitchell-style vocals, breezy acoustic guitar and her world-image lyrics set her apart as the best of the new breed.

Heaven knows she has the right genes. Her father, Terry Gilkyson, is a successful pop music songwriter ("Greenfields," "Bare Necessities," "All Day, All Night Marianne"). Her brother Tony is the guitarist in the band X.

Eliza's love is and always has been folk music. Gilkyson released her first album in 1979 on a tiny independent label. Rave reviews, an Austin City Limits television segment and concert appearances with artists like Jackson Browne, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine followed the independent release, but stardom eluded her.

This year's "Pilgrims" (Gold Castle Records) brings together her years of club experience into a brilliant collection of songs touching upon everything from personal relationships to Third World struggles.

She's not afraid to express her indignation at American foreign policy, like on "Material Man," where she chastises, "Down in the dungeons, doing them deals, dealing with dollars, turning star war wheels . . . Profit and power, that's the way it's done, take the Third World nations, one by one, use fear as your weapon, material man."

Just as easily, she can turn from international affairs to affairs of the heart, like the Dylanesque strains, "Love is some four-letter word only fools and angels speak."

Gilkyson's lyrics are surprisingly poetic and exceptionally melodic. Her songs have a folk feel, yet radiate pop appeal. They are dominated by the breathy sounds of acoustic guitars, but are highlighted by synthesizers, pianos and violins for a more contemporary feel.

While Gilkyson blends traditional folk with contemporary pop sounds, Texas folk mistress Michelle Shocked is traditional folk, through and through. She sings story songs, she plays acoustic guitar and her first album was recorded on a Sony Walkman.

Michelle Shocked was "discovered" in 1986 in Kerrville, Texas. The annual folk festival at Quiet Valley Ranch had just concluded, and Michelle had joined a nearby campfire where musicians gathered after the official program was done.

Englishman Pete Lawrence was captivated by the thin songstress and pulled her aside. Would she mind playing a few songs into his Walkman?

The tape turned out to be more than a personal souvenir. Lawrence went back to England, started a rec-ord label and turned Shocked's tape - complete with crickets chirping and trucks roaring in the background - into "The Texas Campfire Tapes." The record was a hit in England, and Shocked, whose record has now been released in this country on Mercury Records, went from a Texas folk singer to a full-fledged European star.

A self-described loner, counter-culture hippie and bookworm, Shocked has all the beauty and simplicity of a cool evening around a campfire. While her songs are not blatantly political, her balladic vignettes tell stories with subtle social and political undertones.

Not since John Prine's self-titled LP has an album captured the story of real people with real lives the way the "Texas Campfire Tapes" does. It grabs at the underbelly of life. The songs are both delightful and disturbing - exactly what you expect from folk music.

There is greatness in songs like "Fogtown" and "5 a.m. in Amersterdam" and "Who Cares."

Shocked is unquestionably traditional in her songwriting style and delivery. But when it comes to untraditional, the future belongs to Jane Siberry. Her new LP "The Walking" (Reprise Records) is poetry set to contemporary sound mixes.

The result is something akin to a psychedelic Carly Simon reading poetry at a New Age coffee house.

The recipe is simple: Take lyrics like, "There's a red leaf that falls from a purple tree, it falls, it floats down, one red leaf against a clear blue sky, it floats down." Set that to unconventional musical structuring of keyboards and synthesizers, mix in some great melodies and stir.

The result is like a disjointed dream, alternately pleasant and disturbing, beautiful and angry. And like such dreams, when it's all over, you're not sure what it all means, or if it means what you think it means.

Siberry's music isn't for all tastes. But when it comes to folk-tinged music on the cutting edge, you can't get much better than "The Walking."