Taylor Swift’s South Jersey Summers
By Kate Morgan


If you’re familiar with the pop superstar’s music, you can totally see how the quaint town of Stone Harbor fits right in to the collection. SJ Mag contributor Kate Morgan takes a look at the singer/songwriter’s connection to the Shore – and us.

When Taylor Swift steps into the lights at Lincoln Financial Field this month, she’ll be hailed as a mega-star. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter has 10 studio albums and a dozen movie projects under her belt. She’s toured the world 5 times already, and has won 12 Grammy Awards, 29 Billboard Music Awards and an Emmy. She’s one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. In short, it isn’t a stretch to call her the most famous pop star on the planet.

But before she was playing to sold out stadium crowds, Swift learned to entertain on a tiny stage in the corner of a cute, if cramped, café in Stone Harbor. Swift was raised in nearby Berks County, Pennsylvania, and spent most of her early summers down the shore, in a home her parents owned on the bay in Stone Harbor.

She may be a product of Wyomissing, PA, or of Nashville, where the family moved when Swift was 14. She may consider “home” to be her North London flat, or one of the mansions she owns in New York City, Los Angeles and Rhode Island.

But she’s from Stone Harbor, too.

“I am totally from there,” she told Vogue writer Jonathan Van Meter (who’s also, as it happens, from Stone Harbor). “That’s where most of my childhood memories were formed.”

And she certainly hasn’t let go of them. When her 8th studio album, “Folklore,” was given a surprise release in the summer of 2020, it was accompanied by a suite of music videos. In the video for “seven,” a song about childhood friendships, there’s a clip of a young Swift in a Sea Isle City hoodie.

On Twitter, culture reporter Tim Marcin – who grew up in Delaware and also spent summers at the Jersey shore – joked, “Baby Taylor Swift rocking a Sea Isle City sweater is a reminder that she is Pennsylvania as hell and probably has to remind herself not to say ‘wudder.’”

Swift doesn’t say she spent her summers “at the Jersey Shore,” she told Vogue, because too often, people just picture the infamous TV show. Instead, she calls it, “a cute little harbor town in New Jersey.”

Swift memorabilia at Stone Harbor’s Coffee Talk

The Swift family’s home was on 3rd Avenue, with Sanctuary Bay at its back door and the Stone Harbor Bird Sanctuary across the street. “I had a pair of binoculars, and some days I’d just stare at the window, looking for birds,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Or the boy who lived next door to me, whom I swore I would marry someday.”

The family bought the bay house when Swift was just a toddler, and it really is tied to some of her most formative memories. She recalls seeing LeeAnn Rimes play in Atlantic City in the mid-1990s – it was part of the singer’s early education on country divas. And as she grew up, Stone Harbor became both playground and proving ground. As a young teen, she’d spend hours singing karaoke at the now-demolished Henny’s Seafood Takeout on 3rd Ave., and playing acoustic sets at Coffee Talk on 98th Street. Madlynn Zurawski, who first opened the café in 1995, has said that Andrea Swift, the singer’s mom, would call to ask Zurawski to “squeeze her in.”

“I used to drag my parents into those places all the time, and all of their friends would show up and put dollars in my tip jar,” Swift said. Some of her earliest songs were written during – and about – those summers. In her 2020 Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” there’s a clip of a young teen Swift playing a song called Smokey Black Nights that she later said was all about being down the shore. The song made its way onto Swift’s first studio demo, released in 2003.

We all know that summers at the Shore are transformative. There’s a good reason that when you ask many people to picture their “happy place,” it’s a beach. There’s something magical about a place like that. At least, that’s how Swift felt about it.

“We lived on this basin where all this magical stuff would happen,” she said in Vogue. “One time a dolphin swam into our basin. We had this family of otters that would live on our dock at night. We’d turn the light on and you’d see them, you know, hanging out, just being otters. And then one summer, there was a shark that washed up on our dock. I ended up writing a novel that summer because I wouldn’t go in the water. I locked myself in the den and wrote a book.”

Swift has often said that her songwriting is really, at its core, a form of storytelling. The album “Folklore,” in particular, is an indie-toned collection of short stories set to music. On Twitter, she said it was the result of her “imagination running wild.” In fact, Swift talks a lot about fantasy, creativity, and feeling like an outsider at heart. She’s revealed she struggled to make friends at school in her adolescent years, and was bullied by the popular crowd at her Pennsylvania middle school. But summers offered an escape, and being in Stone Harbor meant she could embrace what made her different.

“I was allowed to be kind of weird and quirky and imaginative as a kid, and that was my favorite part of living at the Shore,” she said in the Inquirer. Those summers in Stone Harbor indelibly shaped Swift, influencing the dreamy, often vulnerable songwriting that’s earned her major acclaim. At 20, she became the youngest artist in history to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. A year later, she was Billboard’s Woman of the Year.

And when she needed to feel the magic again, she came back to South Jersey. During a tour with Brad Paisley, she told the Inquirer, “we had a day off, so I took my whole band back to my little summer town and we went out to one of the islands in the inlet and swam and tubed and went water-skiing. I kind of felt like I was 10 years old again.”

It’s no leap to think the Taylor Swift we know now – the utter superstar whose “Eras Tour” is a sweeping retrospective on all her albums and a kind of recounting of her life so far – was shaped in no small way by those early South Jersey summers.

Swift’s songs frequently touch on those themes of nostalgia for the past – people and places remembered in a kind of golden haze. It’s how she remembers her South Jersey childhood, too. The reality is that Swift, now one of the most recognizable people in the world, can’t ever really go home again. Not to Stone Harbor, anyway. Her parents sold the property on 3rd Ave. in 2005, and the house Swift remembers isn’t even there anymore. In 2018, its owners replaced it with new construction.

But in Stone Harbor, much abides: the coffee shop, the ice cream places, the pizza joints and the perfect (as she put it) “little summer town.” And Taylor Swift is welcome back anytime.

May 2023
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