John Mellencamp celebrates twenty two years of Farm Aid on Sunday in New York City.
Friday night, at the end of a two-day Nation campus tour to Indiana University, I visited Mellencamp at his converted farm house/recording studio outside of Bloomington. It’s hidden away in Browne County–a place of lush and rolling hills with natural light that would make angels weep. He’s been set up there since the early 1980s. The heartland rocker–a term he doesn’t love, but it fits so right– is now 56. He’s hard-talking–whether about guitars (“all guitars are like girlfriends, with songs in them, and then they just stop giving those songs to you”– as he shows off the dozens of his old guitars stacked in their cases in his cold archive/storage room). Or Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels (he was railing against the former Bush budget official for privatizing and selling off the richest parts of the state to his crony/buddies)….But he’s still idealistic at heart.
On a warm Indiana night, he was into the first of many hours rehearsing with his band, 4 or 5 of whom live in the state–working out the kinks in a new song, Troubled Land. Its refrain, Mellencamp says, is “bring peace to this troubled land.”
He was tired, but pumped, about coming into New York for the first Farm Aid–22 years after it started in September 1985. That first concert, in Champaign, Illinois, launched just as Mellencamp was about to release his album, Scarecrow— with a song about a farmer losing his land to a foreclosure.
Foreclosures, across our country, on farmlands, in urban lands, are now back in the news as they haven’t been for years –and corporate power, always a theme of Farm Aid–is as strong and unchecked as it’s ever been. As Mellencamp once said, “Corporations are absolutely going to steal our identity…And it’s happening.” Though he got grief for letting Chevy use one of his great hit songs, John “Cougar” Mellencamp remains an outspoken critic of corporate power and stays true in working to draw attention to the struggle of heartland farmers and their families.
Farm Aid, which has–as of Sunday’s concert on Randall’s Island–raised $30 million and distributed more than 80 percent of it to help family farmers survive financial troubles. In these last two decades, its mission has grown-as it has attracted new generations–to raise awareness about farming locally, consuming locally, shopping locally and farming in environmentally aware ways. (One sad note, this year–according to the New York Times, Mellencamp tried to line up some New York city bands, but they turned down the unpaid gig.)
In its way, as Willie Nelson told an interviewer, Farm Aid has become a real, down home institution. And it’s one that makes a difference–even as it confronts greater consolidation and conglomeratization of agriculture and farming. It’s stepped up–especially at times of emergency and tragedy. On September 1st, 2005, for example, Farm Aid’s board–which includes Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Nation reader and supporter Dave Matthews (check him out in our “Nobody Owns the Nation” campaign) donated $30,000 to farmers whose lands were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. On a smaller scale, in 1985, it started an emergency food program for hungry farmers.
Mellencamp doesn’t know what the future holds for the music business….though he’s kind of pessimistic….(“My kids don’t want to pay for music….and bet your 16-year-old doesn’t”) But that isn’t what really grips his interest…What he feels passionately about is staying alive–he smokes but works out for a couple hours every day after a heart attack some 20 years ago–and making music that speaks to the people he lives among, people who are working two jobs, facing foreclosures and all the while trying to maintain some dignity and stability.
“I’ll be part of Farm Aid for as long as it’s necessary,” he says..”and the way it seems right now, it’s going to be needed for a long time.”