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Bob Dylan astonished thousands of fans at Willie Nelson’s sold-out Farm Aid festival with a surprise late-night performance Saturday (Sept. 23) at the Ruoff Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana.

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The appearance took place 38 years after Dylan conceived the idea for what became Farm Aid.  

On July 13, 1985, in Philadelphia, Dylan had taken the stadium stage of Live Aid, the mega-benefit organized to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Between songs, he mused to the event’s global audience: couldn’t a similar benefit help America’s family farmers?

“The question hit me like a ton of bricks,” Nelson recalled to Billboard in 2015. The musician was on the road that day, watching Live Aid on his tour-bus TV, and began looking into the economic crisis that was then forcing family farmers off their land and into bankruptcy. Then he called his friends, including the musician who made the suggestion.

Dylan was among the remarkable lineup of country and rock musicians who played the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1985, a bill which also included Nelson’s fellow Farm Aid founders Neil Young and John Mellencamp, along with Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Billy Joel, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt and many more — including Tom Petty, who died in 2017, and Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers.  

Three decades on, Farm Aid remains music’s longest-running concert for a cause, having raised more than $64 million to support family farmers and a sustainable food system.  

Farm Aid’s guiding board now includes Dave Matthews and Margo Price, and Saturday’s bill also featured the Grateful Dead’s Bobby Weir & the Wolf Bros. featuring the Wolfpack, Lukas Nelson, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Allison Russell, The String Cheese Incident and Particle Kid. Also on the bill: Clayton Anderson, The Black Opry featuring Lori Rayne, Tylar Bryant and Kyshona, the Jim Irsay Band, featuring Ann Wilson of Heart, Native Pride Productions and the Wisdom Indian Dancers.

At Farm Aid in 1985, Dylan performed with Petty and the Heartbreakers.

“At that time, Tony Dimitriades, Tom’s manager, was in a business partnership with [the late] Elliot Roberts in Lookout Management” who represented Dylan, recalled Bill DeYoung, a music critic, author and Petty historian, in a 2017 interview with Billboard.  DeYoung for many years worked at the Gainesville Sun, the newspaper in Petty’s Florida hometown.  

“Dylan needed a band for the first Farm Aid,” said DeYoung. “Everything else sprang from that.”

“Everything else” included the True Confessions Tour that Dylan and Petty launched together early the following year, in February 1986, during which the Heartbreakers backed Dylan for some 60 shows in Australia, Japan and the United States — including two nights at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. and three nights at Madison Square Garden.

The singers also performed at the second Farm Aid on July 4, 1986 — via satellite from their tour stop at Rich Stadium, outside Buffalo, New York. A second outing, the Temples in Flames tour, followed in 1987. 

And the creative friendship between Dylan and Petty — born at Farm Aid — flourished.

In 1988, Dylan welcomed Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to his studio in Malibu to record the song “Handle Me With Care.” Originally intended as the B-side to a single from Harrison’s Cloud Nine album, the song instead became the inspiration for the tongue-in-cheek supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

So, from Farm Aid, Dylan found a potent touring partner and a hit recording collaboration. On Saturday, the legendary singer contributed to the goal of helping America’s family farmers, which he had first suggested on stage 38 years ago.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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