Over four decades Rafael has chronicled his life and the world around him with songwriting rooted in folk tradition; and no influence is more obvious in his work than that of Woody Guthrie. Joel composed music for five sets of Guthrie lyrics given to him by Woody's daughter Nora, and two of his co-writes with Guthrie appear in Every 100 Years - The Woody Guthrie song book (2012). "Dance Around My Atom Fire" (Guthrie/Rafael), the opening track of his recent release, America Come Home (July 2012), took top honors as the 9th Annual International Acoustic Music Association's Best Folk Song of 2012. David Crosby and Graham Nash contribute harmonies to the title track, "America Come Home."

Joel Rafael first began performing in showcases and small clubs around Los Angeles, San Diego and the Inland Empire in California. He formed a duo with San Diego-based Rosie Flores in 1978, enjoying standing-room-only crowds during their nine-month collaboration, and local promoters sought him as an opener for national touring acts from Rick Danko to Emmy Lou Harris, including John Lee Hooker, John Stewart, Laura Nyro, and Taj Majal.  In 1981, Rafael toured the southwest with Jesse Colin Young, and released a debut album, Dharma Bums.

The emergence of the seminal Joel Rafael Band in 1994, coinciding with a period of FM radio programming freedom, resulted in national airplay, a tour with Joan Baez, and regular co-bookings with John Trudell.  Rafael won Kerrville Folk Festival's "New Folk Songwriter Award" in 1995 and he has been a featured performer at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival every year since its inception in 1998.