My Kalamazoo Gals journey began in earnest almost precisely five years ago, in September of 2007 with my first visit to Kalamazoo. From meeting my first Kalamazoo Gal, to having my 1943 Gibson re-inspected by its original inspector, to the tearful goodbyes after only a three day stay, it was a visit filled with moving moments.
On my return flight home, as I replayed in my mind’s eye what I already knew were life-changing experiences, I began to think that I’d uncovered a significant moment in American history. As I gazed out the airplane window to watch Middle America pass underneath me, I resolved to return to re-interview the Gals in the presence of a videographer and to do everything possible to tell their story well.
Attempting to tell the story well eventually involved hosting two afternoon “teas” for the Gals, hiring a genealogist to trace the life of Gibson’s founder, Orville H. Gibson, X-raying guitars to compare the work of the Kalamazoo Gals to their male predecessors and successors, and retaining the services of a researcher who pulled one thousand pages of wartime documents mentioning Gibson from the U.S. National Archives.
The journey also enabled me to play dozens of Banner Gibsons. Collectors from around the globe sent me their prized instruments for X-raying and for use in the recording of the CD companion to this book. As I got to know the Kalamazoo Gals and began weaving their story into a narrative, the guitars became even more than repositories of cultural history, the instruments began serving as conduits into another era. Knowing the hands that formed the object transformed my experience when picking out a few tunes. I’d met the women who fashioned the bridges on these guitars, sanded the surfaces, glued the interior braces, and conducted final inspection. Every time I pick up a Banner Gibson I think of those women in the 1944 photograph.
When I look at that 1944 image today, my eyes immediately focus on the figure sitting in the front row, fifth from the right. That’s Jenny Snow, the first Kalamazoo Gal I met. I visited their home first in September of 2007 and again in the spring of 2008. At the close of our first meeting, Jenny uttered the words that still disquiet me: “Well, I guess I’m just gonna live long enough to see this book come out.” Jenny, like most of our Kalamazoo Galls, did not survive to see the publication of this book. Or, put more honestly, I didn’t finish the book in time for them to see it in print.
If I didn’t succeed in my goal of completing the story while all twelve of the Kalamazoo Gals remained with us, I did complete it in time to host one more sunday afternoon tea for the surviving Kalamazoo Gals and for the children and grandchildren of those not able to see their names in print. And I do hope I’ve succeeded in telling the story well.
While you peruse this site and hopefully, the book, to begin assessing whether this is a story well told, I’ll pick a few bars on a Banner Gibson and reflect on the gals in Kalamazoo who changed my life.