When I was 9, I met a 50-something enigma.
The woman was unlike anyone I’d ever seen, with her tangled mess of frizzy grey curls, gap-toothed smile, and paint-stained denim overalls. On the outside she looked warm, but her voice, scored from yelling and sharp with lack of patience, juxtaposed her appearance. The zen woman was Grace, and she ran the art room at my Jewish sleepaway camp. I was terrified of her, yet I’d never felt more at home in those rooms with the yellow walls.
To this day, I don’t think Grace knows my name, but I need to thank her for a few things. One, for providing the safe space I needed as an insecure child. And two, for giving me the soundtrack to my young Jewish life.
As us campers got to work on the craft du jour, she’d browse her 2001 iPod (which I like to think she still uses) and the air would fill with The Beatles, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, and, most importantly, Carole King. Of course, I didn’t know who any of these artists were at the time, despite my parents’ efforts to impart on me their passion for “oldies.”
Nevertheless, while I sliced glass for a mosaic, or melded jewelry on a graffitied table, it was always to a blithe blend of nimble-fingered strums, swelling porcelain keys, and bold echoing beats. The music that put me the most at ease, though, was King’s.
I didn’t know it, but Carole King was the soundtrack of all my summers growing up, and therefore, my burgeoning Jewish identity. For years, I didn’t know her name, but I could sing her songs by heart in that art room. I didn’t know her story, but she became such a huge piece of mine.
Carole King was the Jewish role model I needed. Growing up in the south, there weren’t many memorable Jewish women that were part of the conversation. In Hebrew school, the only women I remember learning about were Golda Meir and Anne Frank, which was a short list for a young Jewish girl seeking inspiration.
I wouldn’t find that in Carole King until later, though, and by then, her Jewishness was only a fragment of the whole. It’s her impact as a woman in music that affects me the most.
As much as I love early rock and roll, I can’t deny that the sphere was male-dominated. In general, the history of popular music is often told through the works of men, with women cast aside in the margins.
Throughout the ‘50s-‘70s, women played a very specific role in music. Their function was to pay homage to rock groups, whether through sexual accessibility, adoration, or objectification. They were the listeners, never the musicians, as it was believed that women’s compositions were musically inferior to those of men.
As a result, women in music were seen and heard less. One anonymous woman in 1970 described this realization perfectly in Rat Magazine: “What I was seeing and hearing was not all these different groups, but all these different groups of men…all the names on the albums, all the people doing sounds and lights, all the voices on the radio, even the D.J.’s between the songs — they are all men.”
The narrative of rock, soul, and folk music was to be written by men, and the women who did break barriers still needed to be twice as good to be acceptable.
It’s why The Beatles are representatives of revolution instead of Aretha Franklin, and why Bob Dylan is the poster singer for poeticism instead of Joni Mitchell.
Carole King is the most successful female songwriter of the second half of the 20th century, and yet, in the eyes of so many music “connoisseurs,” she still stands secondary to James Taylor.
But King was a backbone of the music industry in the ‘60s and ‘70s, starting when she was just a teenager. She and her myriad of creative partners wrote hits for The Beatles, The Shirelles, Aretha, The Drifters, The Byrds, and more. Even rarer was the fact she played several instruments, a skill that made her inherently feminist and transcendental.
Carole King and all the other great women musicians were invading a domain that men claimed as their own. Women making rock music took up space and made noise when it wasn’t welcome, forcing society to question femininity, the patriarchy, and what it meant to be a woman.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this until I took music history courses in college. The truth is, even though I’d heard her music, I didn’t even know who Carole King was until I was 18, sitting on that same graffitied bench in that same art room with the yellow walls.
It was the year I returned to camp for my first summer on staff. One evening, while we were messing around in the art room, Grace asked to no one in particular, “What would you like to hear?”
No one answered her question, so I boldly said, “Anything.”
She put her glasses on, plugged her iPod into an aux cord, and chose anything.
What filled the speakers were four piano notes, a guitar, and the voice of Carole King as she began, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever gonna make it home again.” Hearing the song was like pouring liquid silver into a well-worn mold. I took out my phone and Shazamed it, coming across the name “Carole King” for the first time in my life.
Finally, there was a mouth to the words, hands to the guitar, and fingers to the piano.
I remembered all those summers when I only knew her lyrics. I remember that summer at 18 when I knew her face and name. And now, at age 23, her discography is a treasure that I’m lucky to know so well, as well as her story. The person she became is who I get to aspire to be: someone who is freer, bolder, and confident in who they are — and who they can be.
I never had a Jewish role model growing up, but at the same time, I did. I may not have known her name, but she was, and always will be, the soundtrack to my life.
Image by Chuck Fishman/Getty Images