A song for Levon | Front Porch | Indy Week
Pin It

A song for Levon 

"Listen now children, a story I'll tell..."

It seemed a good start: I needed to write an 18th-century death ballad, and I needed to do it fast. The writer Preston Lane and I were about to go into the rehearsals of our first Appalachian play, Brother Wolf. He had added a scene and suggested a lullaby's accompaniment, but I heard something darker.

I needed a name for my character, so I began with Rosalie, after my great-grandmother, who had been known for her singing. The name worked well, with the syllables rolling musically. But Rosalie is the name of one of my three daughters, and it seemed a bad idea to drown the kid in a ballad. I cast about for alternatives for a few minutes before landing on the similarly lyrical Anna Lee. I finished the song while sitting in carpool lines at my daughters' schools one afternoon.

"...of a woman they called Anna Lee."

Six months later, I was in New York for readings with the cast of Brother Wolf. Anna Lee now had a tender role in the play. During a break, the multi-instrumentalist and Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell found me and the show's fiddler, Riley Baugus, tuning our instruments in the stairwell.

"Who wrote the Anna Lee song?" he asked enthusiastically. "I am making a record with Levon Helm. Anna Lee is his old friend from Arkansas—Anna Lee of 'The Weight.' It would be cool to bring her full circle on this record. Can I take the song to Levon?"

And that is how Miss Anna Lee introduced me to Levon Helm.

The introduction induced fortunate incidents—trips to Levon's famous Midnight Ramble in Woodstock; a Grammy for Levon's Anna Lee-inclusive album Dirt Farmer; a memorable night of Levon and his friends in Nashville, dubbed "The Ramble at the Ryman." Every time I saw Levon he asked about my children, teasing my husband to get me back home so I could keep writing songs.

Before the Ramble at the Ryman concert, I got to meet the real Anna Lee Amsden in Nashville; she was none too thrilled about being drown in a song and didn't mind telling me so. Still, that evening, I sat in the pews of the Ryman with my playwriting partner, Preston Lane. We listened, spellbound as Levon sang with an angel band—his daughter, Amy Helm, and Larry's wife, Teresa Williams, singing harmony. Larry played the fiddle. They sang my words like a prayer, with Levon's voice pulling every ounce of emotion from each note, each phrase.

"I'll return to you dear, in the dimming of day
As the sparrow returns to her nest."

There was I time when I sang to my children constantly; I was their singer, free to sing them to sleep or into calm, whenever they needed it. As I was writing, I foolishly wondered if —when they are old and I am gone, as Levon is now—they would remember the voice that sang their lullabies. As it turns out, there are some voices we can never forget, voices that work their way into our hearts, brains and bones. And so I remember Levon, singing. Anna Lee has indeed come full circle.

  • "Who wrote the Anna Lee song?" he asked enthusiastically. "I am making a record with Levon Helm."

Latest in Front Porch

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Front Porch

  • One vote

    • Nov 12, 2014
  • Box of one

    Was I paying to be helped or to feel important, a bona fide expert on only myself?
    • Sep 24, 2014
  • The Old South (Hills)

    The Old South (Hills)

    • Sep 17, 2014
  • More »


Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

Just now seeing this....Liz and I were super close friends in the early 80s. She was so special. I had …

by RoBert 1 on In memoriam: Liz Holm, 1959–2013 (Front Porch)

Nobody will be surprised to learn that Hocutt never went to Nam. He was in the Navy but washed out …

by Jefflenter on Raleigh bad boy no more (Front Porch)

I see his concern. Yes, it was a well written story and showed his caring side for sure. But not …

by Linda Bates Terrell on Motorcycle men (Front Porch)

Follow-up to my "nervous mom" comment. The last coupe of weeks we have been in many situations with individuals that …

by paulapowers on Governor's School blues (Front Porch)

I appreciate your feedback and comments as a mom whose daughter is our schools nominee for Governor's School. We have …

by paulapowers on Governor's School blues (Front Porch)

Comments

Just now seeing this....Liz and I were super close friends in the early 80s. She was so special. I had …

by RoBert 1 on In memoriam: Liz Holm, 1959–2013 (Front Porch)

Nobody will be surprised to learn that Hocutt never went to Nam. He was in the Navy but washed out …

by Jefflenter on Raleigh bad boy no more (Front Porch)

Most Read

  1. Dot-con (Peripheral Visions)
  2. Smug Revisionism (Letters to the Editor)

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation