I can no longer recall just how I stumbled upon this photograph. But I do know that it haunted me for some years. I printed it out, pinned it up on the corkboard of my office, and found my attention drawn to it more often than I care to admit. Whenever I reached a difficult point in a writing project or struggled to understand a court opinion that I would soon be teaching, my attention would wander to that photograph. Who were these women? Why are they all posing in front of a factory?
I’m a law professor by trade, a guitar player still striving for mediocrity, and a freelance writer by necessity. I write “necessity” because, although I love my job and I’ve published dozens of articles in law and medical journals, my passion is for music and, in particular, guitar music. Well, actually the instruments themselves. I love guitars, especially old, well-loved ones. A decades-old time-worn guitar tells a story. Scratches on the instrument’s top divulge how the player picked it, with either a plectrum strumming across all six strings or fingerpicks or fingernails plucking at the individual strings. An examination of the fingerboard where the player presses the strings against the frets to sound the notes reveals a roadmap of the player’s musical tastes and skills. Divots worn only in the lower positions on the neck expose a simple player who accompanied his or her singing by playing “cowboy chords.” A jazz musician will wear the fingerboard and frets almost evenly in all positions. When I pick up an old guitar, I alway find myself imagining where it’s been, who has played it over the years, and what music it has made.
I also find myself wondering who made an instrument. Were the makers also players? Did they have a vision for the end use of their craft, or design the guitars for particular styles of music? Did the maker worry about how the instrument’s pricing might place it out of the reach of the common player, or were they simply pounding out a commodity? Looked at this way, musical instruments become repositories of cultural history. They are markers of the music of their day, the goals of their creators, and the aesthetic choices of their players.
Captivated by these cultural artifacts and seeking a subject matter for my writing that might provide more satisfaction and allow greater creativity in presentation than the stilted musings that professional journals not only expect, but demand, I began freelancing for music magazines. I sometimes wrote about players, even finding myself embedded with Jackson Browne on his tour a few years back, but more often I wrote about instruments and their builders. Then I encountered two data points that drove me to write this book. First, in the course of researching an article I’ve long forgotten, I came across an explanation in the book “Gibsons Fabulous Flattops” for why the WWII era Gibson guitars that sport a small golden “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough” banner are such fine instruments: ”[T]hough nearly 90% of Gibson’s workforce was taken from guitar production an put to work on war contracts, the 10% remaining were the company’s most seasoned craftsmen.” Second, I found that unique 1944 photo of the all female workforce. So I began to wonder. Did these women build these guitars? If they did, why doesn’t anyone know about them? What if these guitars are special not because seasoned craftsmen built them, but because craftswomen built them. Thus began my five year journey that ended with the publication of Kalamazoo Gals.