Woody Guthrie & Sid Gleason letters

One of the pleasures of the folk music scene is the occasional unsolicited packet landing on ones doorstep from the legendary John Foreman. John is known as one of the great champions of the Music Hall tradition, and the Broadsheet King. He’s also a tireless archivist and letter writer.

It was a bit special however when fellow archivist and all round good egg Andy Simons suggested I would be interested in a couple of letters John had received in the early sixties as part of a correspondence with Sidsel “Sid” Gleason.

Sid and her husband Bob were folk enthusiasts who contacted Woody Guthrie when he was in the Greystone Park Hospital  in New Jersey which was close to where they lived and where Woody was being treated for the Huntington’s disease that so cruelly ended his career and which was was eventually to kill him.

They ended up being Woody’s carers, taking him to their house at weekends and looking after his correspondence. The great and the good of the folk scene would visit Woody at the Gleesons and it was in their house that a young Bob Dylan met his hero. It’s also where this recording of a very young Dylan was made – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsnrXhR147A

The two letters date from 1960. John and his wife Rita had obviously reached out to Woody.  I don’t suppose there is much here that will make any great contribution to Guthrie scholarship but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the reality of Woody’s so tragic decline.

Letter 1

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March 19 1960

Dear John & Rita

Just recently I came across a bundle of Woody Guthrie’s mail, among other unanswered letters I found yours.  Woody hasn’t been able to use his hands to write for quite some time and I have been answering his mail with his help on questions only he can answer. I am sure Woody would be very happy if you would write to him again and you will most definitely will get an answer. Woody is still in the hospital and only has Sundays away from there Bob my husband goes after him and brings him home. We spend the day listening to music and reading his mail, making tapes etc. or go into New York

to visit friends. We try always to have something planned. People visit him here and in general we have a great deal of fun.

So John and Rita if you would like to help Woody Guthrie write to him. It’s the only thing that breaks the dull hospital routine – Mail Call!

I will be looking forward writing you again. Soon I hope. Until then as Woody says – thanks for writing.


Sidsel Marie Gleason

Letter Two

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Nov 3rd (1960)

Dear John

Yesterday your letter was at last forwarded to me. I am Mrs Sidsel Marie Gleason and Woody’s corresponding
secretary as he can no longer write, pay or sing but how he enjoys mail. He is our guest nearly every Sunday, so Sunday he will at long last get your letter. It certainly is nice to hear from you and he will be looking for another letter soon.

Your little boy will likely become an auto engineer someday. I know how boys likes to take things apart and I recently saw a large display of toys made to take apart and put together. Clocks, trains, sewing machines, all kinds of things. I wonder if they would discourage or encourage children from taking the real thing apart?

I too think it’s sad that the good old songs sung during both the great wars are being forgotten. There is a group of young folk singers who are gathering the old style folk recordings and redoing them. I don’t mean ethnic type folk song but songs sung and played by some of the great country and western singers before so much of the music went commercial. They play what is known as bluegrass style music.

We just got a letter from a friend in Surrey who told us Jack Elliott’s last concert before he is to come home. Woody will be so glad to see him. He and Woody travelled together about five years before Woody became ill and had to be hospitalised so it will be quite a reunion. We are all looking forward to seeing him.

Woody is as well as can be expected. He will never recover. But he rarely complains.

I am listening to the radio and they (Matthew the disc jockey) is playing the second song by a group in England called “The Living Strings”. They are very good.

Our weather has begun to show signs of king winter so I guess it won’t be long until we have a real white snow covered city. It’s so lovely when the whole country is covered with what looks like fluffy white clouds but I must admit it gets pretty cold. Right this minute it’s 48 degrees and it’s 10:05pm.

My husband Bob is a radio ham (operator) he has only had his ticket eight weeks and contacted 34 of our united states. He uses international code. He was in the army signal service as a radio man for five years during and for a year before Japan struck Hawaii so he is an old hand at code. He really enjoys it. He’s at it right now.

I hope this finds you and yours all well and happy. Once again thanks for the letter, Woody’s address is Woody Guthrie, Greystone Hospital, CB16 Greystone Park, New Jersey.