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.