By Mark Guarino
She may be mythic to some, but Anna Lee Amsden also makes a tasty fried cornbread. She is serving it to hungry music fans in Woodstock, N.Y., one late Saturday night in early September as Levon Helm, her friend of 60-plus years, is gearing to perform just up the stairs.
Remove her last name and Amsden becomes “Young Anna Lee,” the recognizable character name-dropped in “The Weight,” the signature song by The Band, who recorded it for their classic 1968 album Music From Big Pink. Although the song is peppered with references from Helm’s childhood in rural Arkansas, it wasn’t until recently that Amsden, 67, became the song’s public face.
“It’s embarrassing kinda, but it’s kinda nice too,” she said recently by phone from her home in Cabot, Ark. Still, her perspective is keen: “It’s not going to help me when I’m dead.”
She is using her relative infamy to sell cookbooks. “Anna Lee’s Favorite Recipes” (Morris Press Cookbooks), a just-released 60-page collection features reliable Southern cuisine like red beans and rice, roasted wild turkey and fried green tomatoes, but also devotes the majority of its pages to peculiar, gut-busting delicacies like Snickerdoodles, Coca-Cola Cake, Omlets in a Bag, Daddy’s Favorite Round Steak and Gravy and I Don’t Like Broccoli But I Love This Salad. Some creations are obvious from first blush (dove broiled in bacon), others not so much. Can’t Fail Divinity, for example, is code for vanilla nut cookies.
The book’s 174 recipes come from index cards Amsden collected through the years from concoctions created by her mother and friends including Helm’s mother Nell who gets naming rights to the Doodle Cake (crushed pineapples spread over pet milk and vanilla). For years, Amsden kept tabs on the recipes, pulling them out when she cooked for Helm and his bandmates. Last year, her daughter Annette told her the collection should be published to distribute as Christmas gifts, or to sell on Helm’s website. Helm took the idea one step further and invited her to his home studio in Woodstock last May to work on the cookbook from the spring through early fall, a period she could also cook for his weekly Midnight Rambles, the Saturday night home concerts he started hosting in 2004.
Amsden and Helm grew up three miles apart outside Marvell, a sharecropping community in east Arkansas on the Mississippi Delta. Their families were friends on different levels: Helm’s sister was in Amsden’s class and both sets of parents played cards together on weekends. Helm and Amsden did 12 levels of school together but never dated, she said. “We were more like brother and sister,” she said.
In This Wheel’s On Fire (Chicago Review Press), his 1993 autobiography, Helm describes a childhood where tornados and flooding were major fears and neighbors — bound by the hardscrabble life working the land — got through catastrophes by sticking together.
“Just getting to the bus stop on the hard road could be a problem when the fields were flooded,” he wrote. “Sometimes (schoolmate) Mary Cavette and I would be covered in mud from our trip by wagon and mule to that bus stop … Sometimes a tractor had to pull the bus through a mudhole. This went on for a couple of years until my father went before the school board and demanded a little panel truck so we and the Cavette sisters could be driven up to the hard road, where our neighbor Anna Lee Williams as usually waiting for us.”
After high school graduation, Helm left to chase a career playing music while Amsden married then remarried, living in different areas of the country where she worked jobs doing data entry, keeping medical transcripts for hospitals and later working as a cage supervisor at casinos outside Memphis. Over years, whenever Helm was within 200 miles of where she was living, she would cook for him as well as members of The Band starting in the early 1980’s.
“(Musicians) appreciate it much more because they’re on the road a lot. They require just good food, just something that is not sandwich meat or pizza,” she said.
Helm moved in with her for three months in 1967, the period after he quit the Band to work for an oilrig in Houma, La. and was biding time to get back to New York to rejoin the group. “We would get up to go to work and he would go to bed,” she said, laughing. “He was playing guitar, Jew’s harp, people would call to sit in with him. After three months I said ‘I can’t handle it, I have to get another place to get some sleep!”
Their friendship became more immediate in 1997 when Helm received a diagnosis of throat cancer and lost his ability to speak. After 28 radiation treatments, Helm regained the use of his voice. When he was first diagnosed, she and Helm started weekly phone conversations with regular visits to Woodstock.
These days, during his weekly Midnight Ramble concerts — a combination church picnic, gospel revival and roadhouse summit — Helm is singing “The Weight,” a song he has refused to play for years due to his long-standing umbrage with Robbie Robertson regarding publishing credit.
“I didn’t think I would ever heard him sing that song in person again,” said Amsden. “It brought tears to my eyes.