During the MTV Live Aid broadcast, Bob Dylan made a comment. He said, “We need to do this for the American Farmers!” Willie Nelson was watching the show, and he agreed. So he called his friend Jim Thompson, the Governor of Illinois at the time, and also called his friend John Mellencamp and said, “Give us a stadium and we will call all of our friends to come have a fundraiser for the American Farmer!”
So a date was picked, September 22nd, 1985, and the two guys started calling all of their friends.
At the dawning of the big day, I drove down to Champaign, Illinois, with some New York photographers in my car. We arrived mid-morning and walked into the photo pit to start photographing 70 artists in one day! Of course it began raining as the show started, but some great stuff happened that day. In the first hour, Merle Haggard’s performance was followed by Bon Jovi with Joe Walsh sitting in on guitar and Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe guesting on vocals. Later in the afternoon, Van Halen showed off their new lead singer, Sammy Hagar. Bob Dylan played a set early in the evening backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Johnny Cash played with his wife, June Carter Cash and fellow Highwayman Waylon Jennings. The show ended with sets by John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson sitting in. It was a long drive back home with four muddy photographers in my car, but it was a great day!
Farm Aid has continued to this day, with a staff of 20 full time people ready to help any farmer anywhere in the United States. I have photographed all but two of the events.
At last year’s Farm Aid in Saratoga Springs, NY, another great moment occurred. John Mellencamp sent a car down the road to pick up Pete Seeger, who came out during John’s set to sing “If I Had A Hammer,” and was then joined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Dave Matthews for a great version of “This Land Is Your Land.” This was possibly Pete’s last performance, as he passed away shortly after that great day.
About Paul Natkin
Paul Natkin learned photography in the trenches, working with his father, the team photographer of the Chicago Bulls. He shot sports in the Chicago area for five years before he discovered music photography in 1976.
Since then, he has photographed most of the major music stars of the last half of the 20th century, shooting album covers for artists such as Ozzy Osbourne and Johnny Winter and magazine covers for Newsweek (Bruce Springsteen), Ebony (Tina Turner), People (Prince), and music magazines around the world. See his work online at natkin.net.