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Women guitar makers scratched from Gibson history

May 25, 2016

In the summer of 2013, we spoke with law professor and music journalist John Thomas about the Kalamazoo Gals on Stateside.

Credit Courtesy of John Thomas

Thomas had uncovered the story of women who built some 9,000 guitars at the Gibson Guitar headquarters in Kalamazoo during World War II.

This discovery clashed with Gibson’s official assertion that they built no instruments during the war.

He tells the story in his book, Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII.

In the three years since we last spoke, the story has taken some interesting turns. Today Thomas and Kalamazoo Gal Irene Stearns joined us again on Stateside to talk about it.

To start things off, Thomas gave us a taste of what one of those Banner Gibsons sounds like:

Approaching the release of his book, Gibson contacted Thomas with a project proposal. They wanted to build replicas of four of Thomas’ personal guitars.

He sent off the guitars with only three requests: that the women of Gibson’s Acoustic division be the ones to build the replicas, that he be allowed to inspect the prototypes to ensure they’re up to snuff, and that an unspecified amount of the proceeds from each sale be given to the National Women’s History Project.

"It was great. And then it went silent."

“Things looked swimming,” Thomas said. “Initially Gibson was so thrilled.”

The company underwrote his book release in Seattle, at which Thomas told us a Gibson executive spoke “glowingly in front of the crowd and on camera” about the Kalamazoo Gals and Thomas’ work uncovering this “unique part of history.”

John Thomas
Credit Courtesy of John Thomas

“It was great,” he said. “And then it went silent.”

The company stopped returning his phone calls and emails. Thomas was left in the dark about the guitar replication project. When he finally got through, Thomas said he was told, “We think the guitars are around here somewhere.”

He said it took about 10 months to get the guitars back.

Thomas kept sending emails asking about the status of the project, and eventually received a terse update from the Gibson executive who spoke at his book release party:

"The status of the replicas is this: We did a 1942 J-45, an LG-2 mahogany and a Southern Jumbo. All are sold out.”

“No 'thank you,' no reference to the Gals,” Thomas said.

Gibson continued to snub Thomas at every turn, eventually going so far as to deny knowledge of his existence when asked by the BBC:

Thomas told us he doesn’t know why Gibson abruptly decided to ignore him, but he speculates that the acoustic division may not have gotten full permission to initiate the project and that the company may still be acting on its 1940s-era concern that people wouldn’t want to buy guitars made by women.

"I've given up on [Gibson] coordinating with me... but they owe the Gals a footnote in history." - John Thomas

“I’ve given up on [Gibson] coordinating with me … but they owe the Gals a footnote in history. I think they should do the right thing and recognize the contribution of these wonderful women,” Thomas said.

In our full conversation below, Stearns told us a bit about her time working for Gibson, and Thomas shared more about his interaction – or lack thereof – with the company over the last few years.