In 1942 Glenn Miller’s I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo swung its way to the top of the Hit Parade charts for eight weeks. One year earlier, a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbour had dragged America into war, stealing its men overnight like a hypnagogic hallucination. At the same time an extraordinary group of women walked quietly through the doors of 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their mission: to build wartime Gibson guitars.
Glenn Miller wasn’t the only one who had a gal in Kalamazoo. During the years 1942-45, Gibson Guitar Corporation had several. As is the case with many a clandestine affair, their existence has long since been deleted and rewritten from the Gibson history books, their fingerprints and handiwork polished away with a J-cloth. As quietly as they entered the Gibson factory in January 1942, they disappeared again.
John Thomas’ personal quest to find the lost Kalamazoo gals is endearingly told in Kalamazoo Gals: A story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII. This is not just one story but many; finally giving these women their voice, to talk about the guitars they made for a manufacturer that denied they ever existed.
Why the cover-up? We never quite find out. The Kalamazoo women produced nearly 25,000 guitars during World War II yet Gibson denied ever building instruments over this period. Their ads in 1945 even welcomed a ‘new world’ where guitars would be ‘available again’. Gibson folklore eradicated their gals from history, claiming only “seasoned craftsmen” too old for war were carrying out repairs. In reality, women such as Jenny Snow, Velura Wood, Mary Jane Dowels and Ruth Stap populated the work benches, creating refined Banner Gibsons from rationed materials. No mean feat.
As the women vanished in 1945, returning to their children, kitchens and marriages, the Banner Gibsons vanished too. These guitars are unequivocally strapped to the women who made them, with the slogan “Only a Gibson is Good Enough” on the golden banners of the guitar headstocks. “There it would reside for four short years, to disappear sometime in 1945, not again to be seen until the Gibson Company produced reissues in the 1990s of the guitars that many players and collectors contend represent Gibson’s zenith.” And this is what makes John Thomas’ book all the more vital; the Kalamazoo Girls created some of the best guitars in Gibson’s history.
This book is their story, their lives, in their modest words. None consider their work extraordinary. Most shrug themselves off the page that frames them, undermining their contribution as unskilled. 84-year-old Jenny Snow who can uncoil and recoil Gibson mona-steel string in a blink of an eye; Velura Wood who inspected every single Banner flattop guitar during the years 1943-46; frail Mary Jane Dowels, now 80, who back in 1944 “did those fancy ones, you know. The L-5s and Super 400s. I could bind 26 or 27 headstocks in a day.” And then there’s Ruth Stap, who inlaid the Gibsons with mother of pearl. Around her neck is a wooden heart she made in the Gibson factory with five mother of pearl stars. Each star represents one of her brothers: “One for each of my brothers who was in the war. I wore it every day of the war and, you know what? All of my brothers made it back.”
What makes each tale bittersweet is their brevity. As one Gibson gal, Delores, sums up for the group: “My husband got out of the service in 1946 and I became a homemaker”. They loved to work. Like most of us, they loved getting paid even more, but when the time came the same modesty that underpinned their talent, underpinned their willingness to leave as quickly as they arrived without complaint or protestation.
All we’re left with is this one sincere testament to their story, told 70 years after both the Banners and their Kalamazoo gals disappeared, just like Glenn Miller, whose aircraft vanished without trace only a few months earlier in 1944 somewhere over the English Channel. Miller himself once declared: “America means freedom and there’s no expression of freedom quite so sincere as music”. How true that was, and will always be, for the extraordinary Banner women of Kalamazoo.
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Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.
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