Remembering Carol: A Life In Song
We send our beloved Carol - sister, mother, grandmother, soulmate and friend - along on her next beautiful adventure. She was truly one of a kind; an extraordinarily deep and joyous soul, overflowing with wonderment and song. She is widely beloved for her lifetime of uplifting music, among many other creative and spiritual gifts, and we know she continues to be with us, right here, and everywhere.
Carol Annette Noeldner was born in 1941 to Leonard and Margaret in 'the shanty' on their family dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, the second of five sisters and two brothers. As a schoolgirl Carol taught herself to play guitar, piano, and coronet, and became a young organist at the family church in Loyal. She evolved into a singer-songwriter and performed as one of the five Noeldner Sisters, winning singing contests at county fairs, promoting Roy Rogers on TV and radio, and being flown to Nashville for the finals of a national talent show at the Grand Ole Opry. The Noeldner sisters pressed their first 7" singles in 1960 with Carol's "Why Did I Fall In Love" and "All Through Crying".
At the University of Wisconsin Carol performed in the coffee house scene, graduated with a degree in music, and married fellow UW grad Barry Johnson, taking the name Carol Johnson. Together they moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan (Spanish Harlem) as part of Barry's ministerial and social justice studies with Union Theological Seminary. They chose to live in minority tenement housing to immerse themselves in the issues of equality and civil rights. Carol worked as a public school teacher and performed as a 'peace troubadour', and together they actively protested the Vietnam War, publicly chaining themselves with leaders in the movement. Due to his work in the ministry Barry was ultimately granted a potentially life-saving draft deferment, but he and Carol rejected it as another example of the social, racial and economic injustice they fought to eliminate.
In June 1968 Carol gave birth to Luke. Just two weeks later Barry and Carol again protested against the war, in chains and in front of news cameras, with Luke swaddled in Carol's arms, and they faced down the threat of a 5-year imprisonment for refusing deferment. Thankfully Barry was never incarcerated. The three of them spent the rest of that summer at Camp Sharparoon in upstate NY, where Barry took a position as a camp director providing an outdoor experience for lower income and minority inner city kids.
Carol gave birth to Shalom in September 1969, and the family spent the next two summers as director and staff at Pleasant Hill Camp in Michigan, surrounded by nature, music, and community. In 1971 the Johnson family left NYC for Grand Rapids, establishing a communal home with five other families in a large historic house in Heritage Hill. Carol continued to write and perform her own music at clubs around Grand Rapids, working toward her dream of becoming a solo recording artist.
Over the next couple years Carol and Barry recognized their marriage was strained. They separated and eventually divorced, but their mutual respect for each other, and their love for Luke and Shalom, inspired a deeply thoughtful commitment between the two of them to live in the same city while the kids were growing up. Carol's dream was to move to Nashville and cut an album. Barry was deeply engaged in social justice work in Grand Rapids. A coin toss granted Carol first choice of location for the family over the following couple years.
Carol and her kids soon joined her youngest sister Helen, and Helen's boyfriend Matt, living in a small stone cabin in the vine-covered forest hills above Nashville. Helen and Matt were artists and musicians in their own rights, and the two sisters performed together at local clubs. Barry moved into a trailer home outside the city and worked construction. Luke and Shalom attended Nashville public school and shuttled between the two homes a week or two at a time for the following two years.
In 1975 Carol purchased a small home in the rural foothills outside Nashville, Barry built a tree house, and Luke and Shalom ran barefoot in their wild country yard, and through the woods and creek behind it. Helen accompanied Carol in a solo performance on the Grand Ole Opry, and by 1977 Carol had compiled enough original music to record her first full length record, an upbeat folk album called Family Reunion. And then it was Barry's turn, so Carol and the kids followed him back to Grand Rapids to begin again.
Barry settled in East Grand Rapids, moving in with his future wife Dana Wilcox, who had three kids of her own - Tim, Tad, and Kristen. Shortly after, Carol purchased a house in EGR with the support of her boyfriend Tom Eckenberg. The back yards of their two homes were adjacent, and a gate was added so Luke and Shalom could move freely between their two families. It was the first of three homes in the area for Carol and the kids, and with the exception of a couple summers of singing in Charlevoix and Boyne City, MI, she would live just outside East Grand Rapids for the rest of her life.
Carol promoted herself and performed her music from Family Reunion, along with other folk covers, at clubs, concerts and music festivals throughout Grand Rapids. But she also had a tremendous gift for poetically simple lyrics of love, peace, nature, and faith. One of her earliest playful songs, "Love Grows One By One", was written as a wedding gift for two dear friends. "Love Grows" resonated joyously with everyone who heard it - especially young families and children - and it gained a life of its own. It would become Carol's signature song, and a turning point into the genre of children's music.
In 1981 Carol collected "Love Grows" with thirteen other original children's songs into her delightful second LP, Might As Well Make It Love, on which Luke and Shalom both sang. The response for Carol's uplifting music and thoughtful lyrics was enthusiastic and widespread. Families, schools, festivals, churches, and the children's music industry praised her creativity and message. Might As Well Make It Love went on to win a Parents' Choice Award, "Love Grows" was performed on Sesame Street, and Carol hit her professional stride. Over the next three years she wrote and produced two more celebrated children's albums, Isn't It Good To Know (1982), and Fine Weather (1984), both enjoying vocal harmonies from Shalom and securing Carol's reputation as a national favorite songwriter.
During the '80's Carol built her extraordinary Music With A Message performance program around her three children's albums, which became a perennial favorite at thousands of schools, libraries, festivals, camps, churches and conferences throughout Michigan and across the Midwest for several generations. She shared her gift of song and spirit with hundreds of thousands of children and fans from Hawaii to Alaska to Florida. Two and three decades later, Carol would routinely be approached at the grocery store or post office by someone with a huge smile, "Aren't you Carol Johnson!? You sang for me when I was in elementary school. I loved your songs and play them for my own kids all the time."
Carol and Tom separated in the mid '80's, and she moved herself and her high-school kids to a new home in the Eastown neighborhood just outside East Grand Rapids. She was extremely proud to have secured her career and her home as a single working mother. When Luke and Shalom went off to college in '86 and '87, Carol fell in love with Mike Bieri. Their relationship lasted a number of years, and Carol remained close friends with Mike and his wife Dana until his death in 2013.
In addition to the children's music for which she was most recognized, Carol found her deep love of family and faith were prolific muses as well. Over the next several years she wrote and recorded two more albums of personal inspirations and spiritual faith, Belongings Of My Heart (1986) and Gently Down The Stream (1992).
Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in '89, Carol was invited to perform her songs of peace in Russia, and again at Corrymeela, a center for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Carol proudly performed at the Wolf Trap International Children's Festivals in Virginia, and back in her beloved Michigan, with the Grand Rapids Symphony, several Grand Rapids Summer Festivals, the Meijer Gardens Summer Family Series, and St. Cecelia Music Society Youth Choirs. Carol's many friends will tell you that their favorite performances were backyard birthday party sing-alongs around a roaring camp fire.
Carol was a deeply curious and spiritual woman, who meditated, prayed, and joyfully wrestled with her evolving faith. From her traditional Lutheran upbringing Carol struck out on a spiritual path of her own, based in Jesus' teachings but guided by an instinct for Buddhism, eastern philosophy, and mysticism. Her night stand was constantly refreshed with books on mediums, nature, animals, and energy. She was not just a believer but a knower, marveling in the enlightened energy that permeates the universe.
For the past twenty years or more, the center of Carol's belief system has been A Course In Miracles, a book she and her MasterMind study group read together weekly, cycling through many times over, and achieving ever higher levels of insight and inspiration. This 'Happy Class' and her fellow 'Mighty Companions' were the foundation of a number of dear and lifelong friendships. Carol also found spiritual community and structure in her many happy years in the congregation of Unity Church of Grand Rapids. She frequently wrote music to support Sunday services, and on few occasions enjoyed the opportunity to lead services. Carol was honored to accompany services with her music in all three Unity Churches in the region over the years.
In 1994 Carol met Ed Golombeski at her local Post Office. He was working the counter and she was flipping through photos of mountains and flowers from her latest adventure in Alaska. They instantly bonded over their appreciations of all things natural and beautiful and gentle - including each other - and it wasn't long before they were enjoying dinners and snowy moonlight walks. Ed and Carol shared a sublime, quiet and poetic love, accented by the dramatic beauty of Big Bend National Park. All of nature was precious to Carol, from Yosemite Valley to a clod of dirt. Sleeping Bear Dunes was one of the wonders of her world. Nothing rejuvenated Carol more than a brisk stride through Aman or Huff Park, breezing along a smooth bike path, or gaping at jagged ice floes on Hoffmaster's shores. Ed prepared his pop-up camper up North every spring in anticipation of peacefully kayaking side-by-side among reedy ponds or meandering streams. Carol wrote in her will that "light and air are LIFE itself."
During a couple summers in the mid '90's Carol jumped at an extraordinary volunteer opportunity to work and hike along the Colorado trail. She couldn't have been happier than wielding a pick axe and shovel at altitude, laboring among the alpine flowers and camping under a dazzling night sky. One of the highlights of her entire life was the six-week hike from Durango to Denver, and unsurprisingly she wrote a pair of songs about it. "The Colorado Trail" was her love song to this monumental beauty, and she was deeply honored when it was adopted by the Colorado Trail Foundation as the official song of the Colorado Trail. Carol also wrote "Love Is Everywhere" while surrounded by alpine flowers on a sunny Colorado pass. She donated the proceeds of both songs to the Colorado Trail Foundation.
Of all the miracles of the natural world, Carol knew there was one above all others: the extraordinary house cat! As a mother she ensured that her house was always blessed with the feline magic, and her cats' names over the years reflected her childlike joy for them: Hazard & Buzzard, Floom & Bunctious. Over the past five years Carol and Ed have shared such a special bond with Mimosa Aketo that they call themselves 'The Three', and Carol shared many occasions when she would lay on the floor to pet and bond with her beloved Mimosa while she ate.
Carol continued to perform her Music With A Message program across the Midwest, traveling alone by car along rural roads to countless schools and events. And her creative inspiration never slowed either. As the end of the millennium approached, and as technology, the internet, and 24-hour cable news made life feel more frantic and fractured, Carol recognized that a singular theme unified her life, her beliefs, and her music: peace. Carol performed at public parks throughout Grand Rapids as part of the city's "Peace In The Parks" program, including collecting the visions of peace from children all over the city. Carol compiled the wishes into a series of nine songs of peace, recorded them with the Fountain Street Church Youth Choir & Ars Nova Singers, and produced her seventh and final album, Circle of Peace (1999). Carol's son Luke and daughter-in-law Tammy were deeply honored to create the artwork for the CD, and Carol dedicated the album to her newly born first granddaughter, ZoŽ.
A tireless fountain of poetry and lyrics, Carol recorded literally hundreds of additional songs into an audio anthology which remains unpublished. Among them is a gorgeous wedding song called "I Choose You", which Shalom and Carol sang in stunning harmony at Luke and Tammy's wedding, plus a happy handful of songs for each of her three grandkids, ZoŽ, Mikah and Annika, as they each grew up. Many other musicians, and church and school music programs, have approached Carol for permission to perform and record her music. Carol obliged by meticulously scoring and writing songbooks for her three most popular albums, Might As Well Make It Love, Isn't It Good To Know, and Circle Of Peace. Her works have been included in many songbooks and music programs around the world; eight have been included in the hugely popular folk collection, Rise Up Singing.
Encouraged by her beloved writer's group, Carol penned hundreds of poems - some silly, most poignant - which she bound into annual booklets and distributed to loved ones each Christmas. Lesser known is that Carol was also a gifted visual artist. A gorgeous oil painting she made in her youth of her beloved family farm is the centerpiece of her living room. It has all the vast rural texture of an Andrew Wyeth, but of course far more colorful. She was a savvy graphic designer and meticulous typographer as well, illustrating and hand lettering countless fliers for her performances over the years, and inspiring a lifelong love of creativity in her children.
Carol's excitement at being with her family - whether her siblings in Wisconsin or her kids and grandkids in California - was unbridled. Every day was a countdown to her next visit, and her exuberance ensured that we all enjoyed plenty of time together right up until the last. Few trips carried more meaning than a visit to The Farm. The wide open sky, the familiar smells and sounds, picking currants and apples, a tractor ride, a hike to the Mound, the sweeping tire swing in the hay barn, massive bonfires, fireflies and shooting stars, stories of ancestors and childhood, loud political and philosophical debates, and lots and lots of laughter.
One extra special trip was in 2016 when Carol and Luke celebrated her 75th birthday with a week of wishlist hikes in Zion, Bryce, Kolob and Red Canyons in southwest Utah. It was extraordinary, and one of Luke's favorite memories with Carol. This past fall, Carol joined Luke and Tam in celebrating Shalom's 50th birthday with a work weekend of yard cleanup and decoration at Shalom and Annika's home in Alameda, CA. Barry and Dana joined everyone on Shalom's birthday for a day of sailing on the San Francisco Bay, followed by a sunset dinner on the California coast. This was the last time they would all be together.
Late on Saturday, November 23rd Carol suffered a sudden stroke, slipped into unconsciousness, and passed away without much suffering or pain. Carol was 78, and is survived by her partner Ed Golombeski, her son Luke (Tammy) Massman-Johnson, daughter Shalom (James) Bruhn, grandkids ZoŽ Johnson, Mikah Massman-Johnson, and Annika Bruhn, and her siblings Mary (Arlyn) Turnquist, Kristine (Andy) Keogh, Beatrice (Norm) Halfen, Helen Noeldner, Paul (Barb) Noeldner, Hans (Lyn) Noeldner, and her sweet kitty Mimosa.
Carol was surrounded her whole life by family and friends who adored her. She treasured her parents Leonard and Margaret, cherished her sisters and brothers, and reveled in memories of growing up together on The Farm in Wisconsin. Carol held dear to a friendship with her ex-husband Barry and his wife Dana. At Carol's side for twenty five beautiful years has been her beloved life companion Ed.
Carol was bright eyed her whole life that this change of scenery for her would be just another beautiful adventure. As she wrote in her song "Good Company For The Journey Home", "We walk past all illusion now, into the Bright Awareness."
Carol now enjoys the welcoming arms of her beloved parents on the family farm in the sky. Each of us will still feel Carol's love and spirit on a sun-dappled forest trail, in the musical rippling of a meandering stream, and in the warm sand of a breezy Michigan beach.
A beautiful service was held for Carol by her family and friends on Saturday, November 30th at Unity of Grand Rapids.
In love and joyful appreciation of Carol.
Carol's music and message of love and peace lives on in her recordings and songbooks, which will remain available for purchase at her website CarolJohnsonMusic.com.