Thirty-one years ago today on September 22nd, 1985, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hosted the very first Farm Aid benefit concert in Champaign, Illinois. Their mission back then was to help stop the erosion of America’s traditional family farm system in favor of corporate agriculture, but for all the hope in the eyes of the day’s performers, that mission is still ongoing.
Farm Aid was actually inspired by Live Aid – a groundbreaking benefit concert to aid victims of a famine in Ethiopia – and by Bob Dylan, who remarked on the Live Aid stage that he hoped a little bit of the money raised would go to American farmers. Young, Mellencamp and Nelson took the idea and ran with it, slapping together an impressive, genre-busting lineup of stars in just six weeks.
Performers included rock and pop acts like Dylan, the Beach Boys, John Fogerty, Billy Joel, Carole King, Randy Newman, Roy Orbison, Eddie Van Halen with Sammy Hagar and Tom Petty, plus country heavyweights Alabama, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and Kenny Rogers. But it was Nelson who set the tone for the show – one that has lasted more than three decades.
Playing a soggy, daylight set, Nelson zeroed in on the concert’s theme of community and collaboration, performing his well-worn hits but also bringing out guest stars like Arlo Guthrie and Dottie West for “City of New Orleans,” a song that perfectly captured the bittersweet emotions of a nation in transition.
Originally written and recorded by Steve Goodman, Guthrie – son of the great folk singer Woody Guthrie – had released a version of the song in 1972, but Nelson’s 1985 rendition had just won a Grammy for Best Country Song a few months earlier.
Featuring the iconic hook “Good mornin’, America, how are ya?” and a story about a reflective train ride through the country’s heartland, the performance seemed to uncover a growing sense that America was entering a new phase, and that the old days were gone for good. The shaggy-haired duo of Guthrie and Nelson (check out Willie’s still reddish-gold locks) began the song, while the spandex-sporting West joined in halfway through.
The first Farm Aid didn’t end the problems faced by small American farms, but it did offer them some much needed respect, dignity and help. An estimated 80,000 fans attended that first benefit, helping to raise $9 million in one day, while Nelson and Mellencamp went on to help persuade Congress to pass laws like the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987.
Thirty-one years later, the Farm Aid mission continues, under a climate of change that is not so different from 1985. The 2016 benefit was held on September 17th in Bristow, Virginia.