Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII
A book by John Thomas with foreword by Jonathan Kellerman. Soft Cover, 249 pages. Published by American History Press, black & white illustrations and photos throughout.
Let me start here. Putting aside my occasional sojourns into the fictional world of Moby Dick or Mary Shelley, I prefer nonfiction. And, I like it concise and to the point. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but I bring this up because before cracking open Kalamazoo Gals you need to settle in and be in the mood to mosey down the author’s very personal path – taking every side road along the way, maybe stopping for a drink or two, or possibly a light snack, or maybe not a light snack but rather something more stick to your ribs, like a great steak dinner, one that comes from a steer that was raised on a farm, a farm where people live too, in a house. The house is painted white – not snow white, exactly, but more of an ivory. And speaking of ivory …
Ostensibly a book about the mostly female workforce employed by Gibson during WWII, via the author’s “back porch” conversational style, Kalamazoo Gals also delves into what Gibson may or may not have done and/or hidden from the War Production Board (WPB), the U.S. government’s “manufacturing police” during WWII.
As we travel with the author on his quest, we find roughly 16 pages devoted specifically to Orville Gibson, his disputed birth date, his mental state, what his mom was like, and so on. Additional space is given to patents, Orville’s sale of the company and more. You can feel the passion the author has for his subject, the detail and minutiae. If you are a wanderer, you will find this well researched and in-depth information enchanting. There is also a tributary that takes you down the Native American origins of the name “Kalamazoo” with some interesting census data thrown in to boot. By 1925, Kalamazoo had 71,000 residents and 28 dance bands …
Thomas’ information about the company, its workforce, and its mid-’40s acoustic guitars is useful and interesting, sometimes fascinating. But be advised that the author’s insertion of himself into the story is heavy-handed and inescapable; it makes for a thick slog for anyone simply looking for historical facts, specs, and details. Rather than efficiently reporting the results of his truly admirable efforts, the author also emphasizes process; he often resorts to: I said this, and then she said that, and then I said this, and then …. This virtual diary/travelogue is filled to the brim with sentences such as, “I arrive in Kalamazoo at 1:00 p.m. … My pulse quickens as I find my way out of the airport and turn onto the entrance ramp for eastbound Highway 84,” and, “As she reaches me, Helen Charkowski gives me a hug and then squeezes my arm and says, ‘It was so nice to meet you.’” Some may find the lengthy first-person narratives distracting or cloying; others may find them interesting, even charming.
But what of “the Gals” you ask? We’ll get there, but first I need to tell you about the whole manufacturing embargo thing. Apparently, while Gibson was using its wood supplies, tooling and expertise to make gunstocks, it was also making its mercurial “Banner” guitars. These instruments carry a ribbon of text with the oft-lampooned, “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” slogan. This bit of marketing bravado was bested by the then-competitor and later to be subsumed Epiphone, who turned the phrase to their benefit by claiming, “Epiphone – When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough.” Clever.
Also covered is the quizzical conundrum of the Banner guitars featured in WWII-period catalogs. Like all catalogs, they display models with prices and specifications, but interestingly, few if any of the known examples of Banner guitars match those portrayed in those pages. Why? We don’t know for sure, but it would appear that it’s the result of the scrappy, catch as catch can nature of production and materials endemic to the time.
With regard to the WPB, the author references the common wisdom that 90% of Gibson’s work force was working on wartime projects, while the remaining 10% of “workmen” were put on guitar duty. Thomas goes on to question this “knowledge” (my quotes) by referencing his own observation that period pictures of the Gibson plant show that “nearly every one of those ‘craftsmen’” was actually a woman. He continues by pointing out a 1944 meeting of the Stringed Instrument Production Subcommittee of the War Production Board. At this meeting, the author contends, Gibson’s General Manager, Guy Hart, announced that the Gibson “plant is now being run almost entirely by women.” The author continues, “The altered workforce gender balance did not adversely impact Gibson’s productivity.” He wonders how this group managed to fulfill Gibson’s war-effort responsibilities while making 25,000 very nice guitars. Me too. From Chapter One: “In public, the company simply denied that it was building guitars. Its wartime advertisements asserted that because it ‘had to convert almost 100%’ from producing ‘musical instruments to intricate parts of metal,’ it had ceased guitar production entirely.”
So here we have a company that the author says disavowed making and selling “tens of thousands of guitars during WWII.” As a professor of law himself, we can assume he fully understands the gravitas of his comments. Heady stuff, indeed. Consider what we know of the American mindset during WWII, when teenagers lied to get in – not out – of the Armed Forces. This was a time of victory gardens, rationing and war bonds. Consider the stigma of “draft dodger,” not in 1968 terms, but in 1944! Skirting the dictates of the WPB? Hot stuff, and a great conversation starter at your next vintage guitar get-together.
Kalamazoo Gals’ photos include shots of Woody Guthrie with his fascist-killing Banner Gibson as well as some cool images of Buddy Holly’s leather-tooled J-45. Also of interest is a selection of factory purchasing/shipping records, then-and-now photos of buildings and people, and various correspondences, all peppered throughout the book. There is in-depth information on dating Banner instruments, catalog copy, x-rays of instruments that show construction detail, current pix of period instruments, and a cute shot of a crochet poodle that was made by one of the Gals, the poodle holding up a Banner guitar headstock. As one would imagine, there are copious notes and attributions.
In Chapter Eight we turn down another side street, a sample of which can be heard here:
This is a separately sold CD by singer/guitarist Lauren Sheehan. The recording’s particulars are covered here in Thomas’ detailed and intimate style. The song selection is meant to evoke the sound and feel of the times. The sound is close up and tight, nicely showcasing the “woody, middy” tone of these guitars, a tonal esthetic created before every 6-string needed to be a “sound-cannon.”
And speaking of the Gals, this all started with a factory photograph that so intrigued the author that it set him on a course to find these ladies, interview those who were still alive, and write this book. That starts in earnest in Chapter Five, and there’s some pretty cool stuff interspersed between the author’s MapQuest issues and Velura Wood’s oatmeal or cornmeal for breakfast conundrum.
Kalamazoo Gals contains much information about many things and goes way deep into them all; sometimes it’s about the Gals, oft-times, not so much. I learned a lot, and if your favorite part of Moby Dick was Chapter 32 – Cetology (the branch of zoology that deals with whales) – Kalamazoo Gals is for you.