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Anna Lee -- famous and yet obscure

by Linda Caillouet

This story first appeared in the Arkansas Gazette May 11, 2005.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright © 2005, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead... Few songs become classics and resonate through time. The Band's hauntingly beautiful ballad, "The Weight" is one. Maybe it's the music. Or the lyrics. Probably both. Whatever its secret, this song is more visual than most -- a dusty road in a small town full of characters -- Fanny, Luke, Miss Moses, Crazy Chester, and young Anna Lee. The Band broke up in 1976 but "The Weight" plays on; some fans analyzing the lyrics line by line, finding everything from Biblical overtones to post-Civil War South.

This much is known -- the song is filled with people that Band member Levon Helm of Marvell knew, like Anna Lee, from childhood. Band mate Robbie Robertson, a Canadian, is credited as the song's lone writer but Helm's friends say the characters are his. "How could a guy from Canada write that song?" says one.

There really was a Crazy Chester. He's dead now but lived in Fayetteville. Anna Lee? She lives in Little Rock. "Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?" Anna Lee has never shared her story with the press. No one's ever asked -- until now.

The blue-eyed blonde, still pretty at 64, was named for her grandmothers Willie Ann and Rosie Lee. Like many of her generation who came from rural roots, she dropped the double name as an adult. She's now Anna Amsden, an operator and data entry coordinator for a security alarm company. Growing up near Marvell, she was Anna Lee Williams. And she can't remember a time when she didn't know Helm, seven months older.

"He was just always there. When us girls wanted to go to town, we had to have Levon go with us." That's the essence of their relationship -- protective older brother and adoring younger sister. Always platonic. Always laughing, robbing watermelon patches, braving the Garner place (the haunted house of their youth), and dragging Helena's Cherry Street on Sunday afternoons. She always knew Helm loved music and would flee the farmlands, but when he's home, it's like he never left.

Shortly after "The Weight" was released in 1968, Anna Lee was living in California and pregnant. Helm didn't warn her she was in it and in the nearly 40 years since, the two never really discussed it. "When we get together, there are always too many other things to talk about." He's never explained the song's meaning but she thinks it's fairly straightforward -- a weary traveler coming to a place and wanting rest.

Anna Lee knows the song is a part of Helm's legacy but wishes he'd get credit for it. "Robbie Robertson didn't know me from Adam and he didn't know Chester, either." Take a load off Fanny, Take a load for free...

"I've had people ask for my autograph and tell me 'I feel like I've known you all my life,' but unless Levon's around, most don't associate me with it." Anna Lee doesn't dwell on the immortality her friend has bestowed upon her. "I never really think about it living on after I'm gone. But if I did, I'd probably think it was pretty great."

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