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Review written by: Paula Tupper
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In the spirit of Rosie the Riveter and A League of Their Own, a new non-fiction book sets its sights on uncovering the story of the women who worked in the Gibson Guitar Factory during the years of World War II, and who vanished from the annals of the company’s history when the war ended and the men returned. Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s ‘Banner’ Guitars of WWII by law professor and avid Banner Gibson guitar lover John Thomas is the tale of his search for answers about the unique qualities of the models made during that brief window of time, and for explanations of the rich sound that sets those instruments apart from the rest of Gibson’s line.
Thomas owns a treasured Banner Jumbo, manufactured by Gibson during those years. His interest in its provenance was piqued when he found that the company had stated repeatedly that it did not produce guitars during the war, but had retooled to manufacture wooden toys and airplane parts. Gibson’s lack of record keeping and their vague ledgers made getting to the truth difficult. Digging deeper, he found that not only did they make these particularly resonant models, but that many of the factory luthiers were women, who had been hired to fill the vacancies left when the young men enlisted in the armed services after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was hooked. He had to know the stories behind the guitars. Thus began a project that stretched out over years, taking him to Kalamazoo, Michigan and the elderly women who became his own Kalamazoo Gals.
The book, published by American History Press, is a roadmap of his investigation, with appendices that include a gallery of photographs of the women themselves, various examples of the Banner Gibsons, and a series of epigraphs about some of the renowned owners and their Banners like Buddy Holly and Woody Guthrie. It starts off slowly, with the first few chapters a history of the Gibson company and its founder, including rather a lot of biographical ancestry that could have been condensed for all but the most enrapt Gibson enthusiast. When Thomas finally travels to Kalamazoo to meet the women of the title, the book picks up its interest level and begins to develop some heart. Unfortunately, Thomas is not an expert at drawing out the personalities of his subjects, and their own modesty makes their oral histories interesting but not fascinating. We get a good idea of life in the harsh landscape of Michigan during the Depression Years leading up to the War, and how it formed the temperament and work ethic of these women, but we really see very little of their lives, and sadly even less of how they navigated the difficulties of developing from simple schoolgirls into productive luthiers. Much of this is not Thomas’ fault, as his subjects were advanced in years, some were ill or fading, and the participating group contained many who worked making strings, or in the factory office, reducing even further the availability of information about guitar craftsmanship for which the reader might have hoped. Thomas hypothesizes an explanation for the luminous sound of the Banner Gibsons that comes from speculation based on x-rays of the guitars, showing micromillimeter differences in the thickness of the wood in various components, which he attributes to the fine motor skills of the women as opposed to those of the male luthiers. Since the cutting and shaping was done in the basement workrooms, and few of his interviewed women had ventured there, it is hard to give these theories more than cursory weight no matter how logical the conclusion.
Thomas is at his best as narrator when he describes his meetings with the women. His affection and respect for them is palpable, and it makes the reader want to know more about these charming ladies. We feel concern for them as they suffer illnesses and age-related disabilities, and we mourn when we are told that they are no longer with us, but these feelings are raised for the women of the present, not the gals of the past. He also is an excellent historian of the guitars themselves, giving detailed and technical information that any musician or music history scholar would absorb with delight.
Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s ‘Banner’ Guitars of WWII has brought this forgotten trove of history to the forefront, and deservedly so, encouraging other media to look at the women who made the Banner guitars. BBC Radio 2 has named this The Year of the Guitar, and will include the Kalamazoo Gals in one of the episodes they will be presenting. Guitarist and rocker Suzi Quatro narrates Kalamazoo Gals (Monday 23 June, 10pm-11pm) a program that discusses some of the women who worked in the Gibson factory in the 1940s and tells their stories.
On the whole, the book is a worthwhile read, with a great introduction to a portion of hidden history. It may be better consumed in segments, rather like several different articles instead of one long book, to avoid being burned out by some of the slower paced portions or the information heavy chapters on the technical aspects of the guitars. I came away from it feeling grateful that the contribution these women made to music history was no longer overlooked.
7 Comments Add yours
It sounds like he clearly has a passion for his subject, but was unable to communicate the things about it that would have taken it from being a “good” book to a “GREAT” book. It’s disappointing when the source material is so interesting. I appreciate that, while you offered some very well thought-out constructive criticism, you were also very respectful of the author’s passion on the subject. You should be a consultant on projects like this… I bet his book would have been MUCH better as a result!
Your comments are so appreciated. It IS a good book…and it fills a gap in history that needed to be filled! Thanks so much for reading the reviews on this blog!
Thank you so much for your comments! It IS a GOOD book, and it fills a gap in history that needed to be filled. Hope you will continue to follow my reviews on this blog.
I wonder why Gibson chose to sweep these women under the carpet, even go so far as lie and say they never made guitars during the war. Intriguing. The women’s stories would interest me most, I believe, and the photographs. But good for the author trying to get to the bottom of things and highlight these amazing women.
Thomas believed that the omission was more because Gibson wanted the focus directed to their war effort production, and away from any other uses for scarce materials. And, as usual back then, no one thought it was important that the wartime replacements (women) were as good or better than the original luthiers.
Thanks for leaving comments here! I didn’t read the book, but Paula ( one of our many fine reviewers on this blog) read it and reviewed it. Hopefully, she’ll respond to both your comments. But, thank you for leaving your feedback here!!
Thanks for an honest and articulate review of my book. Thanks, too, for taking the time both to read my book and to post your review.
The book was a journey for me as a researcher and writer and I take to heart your observations about the oral history portions of the book. What a wonderful window those women provided into a nearly lost world. They were, indeed, old and frail and only four lived to see the book released. Yes, I probably could have pushed them harder to speak longer and provide more information. But, I was also quite respectful of their fraility and most tired after an hour, or so, of talking. I did return for a second set of interviews. Not all survived for the second interview and, of course, those who did were even frailer.
This said, I have two sentiments today. First, I think, but I should have asked each woman about … about a myriad of topics. But, second, I feel humbled to know that at least I discovered the story and these wonderful women in time to memorialize them and their contributions to American history and culture.
One comment about the comments: I’m convinced that the only explanation for the company’s cover-up of the Gals’ efforts was because the company believed that its largely male consumer base would not embrace women-made instruments. I researched War Production Board regulations and the company’s production figures to determine whether the company had exceeded its legal limitations. Gibson’s production did not approach its legal limit.
Again, thank you for reviewing my book and thanks, too, to the commentators.