Kalamazoo Gals i Sverige

Sweden Kalamazoo Gals at Stenso 8“This guitar was built in 1943. A soldier took it to the European front” (“Denna gitarr byggdes 1943. En soldat tog det till den Europeiska fronten.”)

Sweden Kalamazoo Gals at Stenso 10I’m standing on stage in front of a packed club in Kalmar, Sweden holding a 1943 “Banner” Gibson Southerner Jumbo and beginning to tell the tale of my five year journey that produced Kalamazoo Gals. The audience is rapt and to a person leaning forward as if to catch every word and, when I pick a song, every note. I’m astonished to see the Gals’ story resonate with folks a continent and 5,000 miles away. Maybe I shouldn’t be. The story’s themes – hardship, patriotism, music, prejudice, and triumph – are universal topics of the human endeavor. Still, it’s thrilling to see Kalamazoo Gals embraced in a distant land.

Kalamazoo Gals Outside Swedish Radio“Embraced” really is the right word for how Gals was received in Kalmar. My friend Lars Lindblom suggested the journey to me and made the arrangements with the hosting club, Stensö. The community jumped on the event with both feet. My daughter and I arrived the day before the gig and stepped off the train in Kalmar to find that the morning newspaper, Barometern (Barometer), had run a very nice story about my appearance, complete with a large photo of me surrounded by guitars.

Apparently tipped off by the newspaper, Sverigesradio (Radio Sweden) soon emailed requesting a live appearance the studio. I soon found myself, battered 1943 guitar in hand, sitting before two lively interviewers answering questions posed in English and having the interviewers translate both the question and answer for listeners. I played a song, got the thumbs up, signed some books, and made way for the next set of interviewees, a world music group playing original songs on bouzouki (an Irish mandolin), kora (a West African harp-lute), and guitar.

We need Swedish-style radio in the States!

Then came the visit’s high point: the evening gig at Stensö, a rustic almost barn-like structure that hosts concerts and, on nights like the Kalamazoo Gals night, “story telling.” Yes, there is a popular music club that reserves calendar space for artists who simply tell stories about popular culture, history, and, well, anything interesting. In addition, Stensö offers a great BBQ buffet. Really! Prior to hearing touring musicians and the occasional wayward story teller bearing an old, battered guitar, you get a little bit of Austin, Texas in a lovely village in the south of Sweden.

We need Stensö-style clubs in the States!

I was pleased to know, as the club co-owner Lukas Karlsson explained in the Barometern story, I Swedish Newspaper Story with Photo 2was Stensö’s first “international” performer and something of a club “experiment.” As My friend Lars later expressed to me, the experiment seems to have been a success:

I would like to share a pretty funny anecdote from the night. To my estimate the audience consisted of about one third guitar geeks, one third guitar players, and one third general public. Mattias [Johansson], who is one of the co-owners of the venue and a self-confessed member of the last audience category had this to say when John (with a perfect blend of humor and seriousness) got totally immersed in one Banner guitar x-ray after another: “This is simply beyond geekiness; it is now pure entertainment and I want more.”  The statement was of course all tongue-in-cheek, but also very telling of the response John got from the “non-guitar crowd.”

I can’t take full credit for the response that night because I’ve got the greatest of partners on this wild Kalamazoo Gals road show: my 1943 Gibson SJ. I’m the second owner. The first, a soldier, bought the instrument in 1943 and took it to the European battle front. Both guitar and soldier returned from the war battered and bruised but both more beautiful for the experience. I begin each stop on the tour by holding up the guitar, explaining its history, and urging players and non-players alike to hold the instrument because it’s more than a mere inanimate object; touching the guitar really tells the whole Gals’ story. Built by an untrained workforce, the guitar’s obvious imperfections, like offset bracing, actually enhance its musicality. It’s the perfect repository of WWII cultural history.

And hold the SJ and play it the Stensö audience did. Notes from that beautiful, battered instrument rang into the wee hours as I placed it in the hands of each audience member and those two thirds who played guitar each took the stage.

The Kalamazoo Gals are smiling.

Thank you Lars, Stensö, and Kalmar. I hope to return some day.

In memory of a Kalamazoo Gal

Helen Ufkes As I wrote in the preface to Kalamazoo Gals, my five year effort researching and writing the book was a journey “filled with moving moments.” My journey not only continues as I bring the story of the Gals to the far reaches of the globe, but those moments are becoming even more meaningful.

One of those moments occurred last week when Kalamazoo Gal Helen Ufkes died at the age of 102.  Because I was on the road in Montana and Idaho on my Kalamazoo Gal crusade, I was not able to attend Helen’s memorial service.  Instead, Helen’s granddaughter read the following message to the assembled mourners while I marked my grief a thousand miles away.

Last Visit with Helen Helen Ufkes changed my life. She touched my soul and as a result I am a better person for having known her.

I only met Helen twice, and then for only a few hours on each occasion.  But the circumstances were so meaningful to me and Helen was such a warm, loving, and gracious person that her effect on me was profound.

I first met Helen in the spring of 2008. I had just begun work on the book that was published this past March: Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and  Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII.  I’d taken out ads in the Kalamazoo Gazette to let folks know that I was researching a book about the women who worked at Gibson during WWII.  During the war Gibson publicly denied it was building guitars while at the same time it produced over 24,000 instruments. I wanted to speak with people who had worked at Gibson then, nearly all of whom, I knew, were women.

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