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Northwest News Network

Rosie The Riveter Had A Sister, Laura The Luthier

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

During World War Two, a popular song called "Rosie the Riveter" turned female assembly workers into icons. Women filled in at places like the Boeing airplane factory in Seattle and the Kaiser shipyards in Portland while the men went off to war. But one famous guitar company allegedly tried to hide the fact that it was using female replacements to keep making its musical instruments.

We get to hop-scotch across the country to fully capture this story. It starts in New Haven, Connecticut. That's where author and self-described "guitar geek" John Thomas lives. He was intrigued by a wartime photo taken at the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan. The 75 people in the black and white staff portrait are nearly all women. And there's the rub. The picture contradicts company lore that Thomas had heard... either the famous instrument producer stopped making guitars during World War II, or kept the line alive with just a few senior craftsmen.

In reality, production was humming with new hires like Irene Stearns, now age 90.

"I got out of high school and everybody is looking for a job, and there were no jobs," Stearns says. "Then one day, they called and I started at Gibson. I suppose it was because of the war."

Stearns is one of a dozen former Gibson factory workers who Thomas tracked down in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. She made guitar strings in the factory for a few years.

"All the celebrities and people who were buying the guitars would come," Stearns says. "It was really nice in that part... where I sat making strings. I could hear them playing all these beautiful guitars."

Author John Thomas calls Stearns and her former co-workers the "Kalamazoo Gals." That's also the name of his new book about the female guitar makers. He jokes Rosie the Riveter had a secret sister, "Laura the Luthier."

It dawned on the author that a musical recording would enhance his story. Thomas collected three of the WWII Gibson guitars and borrowed a dozen more. Then he needed to find an accomplished guitarist to play them and sing.

That's when a mutual friend introduced him to Lauren Sheehan of Portland. Sheehan says she was quickly smitten by the story.

"When he said, 'I'm thinking about making this record,' and wouldn't it be cool if a woman played the guitar because since it's a women's story, I thought, this gets better and better; this would be a great project," Sheehan says. "Then he invited me to do it, completely by surprise. We had known each other for about 20 minutes and he had never heard me play. Certainly I'm a champion for a story about women excelling at work that is traditionally a man's domain."

Sheehan and Thomas say it's easy to pick out the guitars from the era when women staffed one of the nation's premier instrument factories. The giveaway? A decorative flourish on the headstock.

"Right across the upper third of the guitar, there's a little golden banner that says, 'Only a Gibson is good enough.' That banner is only on these WWII guitars, hence the name 'Banner' guitars. And then the banner disappears."

Researcher John Thomas had the vintage guitars x-rayed to support his claim that the temporary female workforce built more "refined" guitars, even though they had to deal with raw material shortages. Sheehan picks up a patched-together 1943 'Banner' guitar to demonstrate nuances in its "voice" and tone.

Then she strums a modern Collings guitar patterned on the vintage instrument.

"I think this one is louder," Sheehan says. "And it has a more resonating base."

Gibson 2.jpg
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Portland musician Lauren Sheehan recorded a dozen classic songs on vintage Gibson "Banner" guitars like this one.

The older guitar by contrast sounds brighter and "sweeter".

For the new CD, the Portland-based musician played a different vintage Gibson "Banner" on each of the dozen tracks.

"I arrive a couple of days before studio time and start meeting the instruments," Sheehan says. "I guess it is a little bit like meeting a new person, really seeing what I have to work with here."

After she finished the recording sessions, Sheehan got word that a luthier in Beaverton had restored a vintage Gibson 'Banner' (1943) and was willing to sell. She snapped it up and will play it at upcoming CD release concerts.

On the Web:

Watch Lauren Sheehan play Blind Boy Fuller’s “My Baby’s So Sweet” on a Gibson Banner guitar:

Book info: "Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's 'Banner' Guitars of WWII" by John Thomas (American History Press, 2013) http://www.kalamazoogals.com/

More details at: http://www.laurensheehanmusic.com/

Gibson Guitar Corp. product page for "exact recreation" of 1942 "Banner" Guitar: