LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — “Young” Anna Lee Amsden, immortalized in The Band’s song “The Weight,” is kicking off an effort to restore Levon Helm’s childhood home and extend a musical heritage the drummer from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, developed over 60 years.
The Levon Helm Legacy Project says it needs about $150,000 to preserve the green-sided sharecropper’s house, erect a bust of the performer nearby and introduce young people to the blues, folk and rock ‘n’ roll traditions.
“One of the last things he said before he died was ‘Just keep it going,’” Amsden said in an interview Wednesday.
Helm died from throat cancer in 2012 at age 71 after spending his final years at Woodstock, New York — far from the cotton fields that surrounded his old home a few miles from the Mississippi River. Characters from his youth populated his songs. In his vocals on the 1968 song “The Weight,” he sings: “Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee? He said, ‘Do me a favour, son, won’t you stay and keep Anna Lee company.’”
“I don’t think of him as a big movie star or a musical icon. I think of him of somebody that I love dearly who was a part of my family,” said Amsden, who is 76 and grew up along another country road near Turkey Scratch. “The fact that he left Phillips County and made out as well as he did — people would come to his rambles and be just in awe of playing with him — he needs to be immortalized.”
Helm is noted for his work as a drummer and a singer for The Band, though he also played Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Capt. Jack Ridley in “The Right Stuff.” His final two solo albums, “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt,” each won a Grammy. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Arkansas tributes already are underway, even without contributions rolling in to a GoFundMe site set up for the Levon Helm Memorial in Marvell. Arkansas legislators this year designated a portion of U.S. 49 as the Levon Helm Memorial Highway.
“People from all over the world are coming to eastern Arkansas because of the music,” said Rep. Chris Richey, a Democrat from West Helena who sponsored a bill to honour several performers.
While Helm’s childhood home has been moved twice from its original location, there’s still interest in Turkey Scratch, said North Little Rock sculptor Kevin Kresse. He has completed a bust that will be placed near the home, but needs $25,000 to bronze it.
“There’s nothing there and yet people are still wanting to come” to see where Helm grew up, he said.
Joe Griffith of Marvell, the chairman of the memorial effort, said the group’s initial hope is to have something concrete in place so people will realize the effort is serious. He said it hopes to raise $30,000 to qualify for matching funds from the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, which serves the area, and is also seeking a grant from the Delta Regional Authority.
“His daughter Amy said ‘My dad would rather teach kids the love of music than a tribute,’ but Dad ain’t here to vote against it,” Griffith said.