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Shetland Lives / Woodstock 50 years on: An experience beyond belief

Fifty years ago, Skeld resident Debbie Hammond and five friends headed off on a special journey. In this two-part feature she tells Shetland News reporter Peter Johnson how that weekend of peace and music was to change her life and open up a new world of experience.

Fifty years on - Debbie Hammond with the legendary Woodstock vinyl album. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Debbie, who was a native of Hollywood, Florida, her friend Sarah Newport, Sarah’s brother Roger, and three others, took the long drive north to attend a little publicised music festival in upstate New York.

That mysterious event was to make history as the mother of all festivals and perhaps the defining moment of the 1960s for the western world.

Under the pretext of visiting Sarah for a long weekend, 16-year-old Debbie and the others piled into Roger’s car and a 24-hour journey to Woodstock – the ultimate music, peace and love destination.

Billed as An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music, the festival was nowhere near the village of Woodstock, but at a 600-acre dairy farm near Bethel, 43 miles southwest of its namesake.

As if made for such a beatific gathering, that part of upstate New York was a beautiful agricultural landscape of rolling green hills, forests and lakes.

Speaking to Shetland News on an unseasonably sunny night in Skeld earlier this summer Debbie said she and some friends had heard that there was going to be a music festival in New York state, “but nobody was really quite sure what was happening”.

There was nothing ‘hippy’ about her group – just some young Floridians from ordinary backgrounds in search of a bit of fun and adventure aside from the sun and palm trees of Miami. The three girls were sixteen, the three guys a few years older.

Debbie said: “The guys were definitely different thinkers. Two of them were musicians, but they weren’t the long-haired, hippy-beaded folk that we ran into when we got there. There was some unbelievably incredible folk there.

“I had no conception of it, nor did Sarah. And I really don’t think the boys did either, they just heard there was going to be something happening. One was actually from New York, but was living in Florida, and it was him that said ‘oh you really wanna come to this’.”

So the contingent headed up to New York state in Roger’s car on Thursday with the intention of arriving on Friday morning, in time for the start of the festival which attracted around 400,000 people over a long weekend from 15 to 18 August 1969.

The realisation that they were about to experience something special hit Debbie when they reached a tail-back on Friday morning that went on for miles.

“An experience beyond belief”, she describes Woodstock. “I don’t think anybody realised how many people were gonna be there. I had kinda heard rumours that Jimi Hendrix was gonna be there and Janice Joplin, but that was the only two that I’d really heard about.”

The early arrivals paid entry to Woodstock – before the fences came down – and at six dollars a day admission, it was a bargain.

“We arrived late, late afternoon and then we had to find somewhere to pitch our tent. There were just so many people there [around half-a-million] and I was completely useless because I had never been in an atmosphere like that. People would say like, ‘pass me the poles for the tent’, and I’d be like, ‘sorry?’ I just couldn’t take anything in.”

One thing that immediately struck Debbie was the huge age range of Woodstock goers. There were “lots and lots” of parents with young children and people from her own age up to pensioners.

Despite the huge and bewildering throng, Debbie never felt scared. “There was not one bit of fear the whole weekend. There were several things that went wrong, things that happened, but there was no paranoia at all. I don’t think you could have been there if you were paranoid. It was kinda claustrophobic, to be honest, and I always made a point of sticking with Sarah or Yvonne. I think it would have been quite daunting to have been on your own.”

Debbie did not hear of any theft or violence at the festival, though given the sheer number of people at Woodstock, it would have been miraculous if there was none.

“Because it was such a new experience for everybody I think it was definitely really, very trustful. People were very kind and interesting and interested as well, which was so nice, ’cause you kinda felt – well I was 16 – I was in awe of people that could live their life like that.

“You did not see it as a three-day musical event, you saw it almost like a way of life.”

“Probably because it was the first one of its kind, everyone was determined to make it utterly special – a) because if they did, they could continue with more of them and b) because it was a way of feeding your spirit. It was a way of believing that that number of people when put together can bring about a really positive response rather than a negative response.

“I thought about the possibility of getting large numbers of people together to bring positive change rather than negative change. But of course that’s terribly optimistic when you are in a world where you are really not allowed to have that kind of thought all the time, so you have to take the good with the bad.

“So I think I took, yes, the Vietnam war, yes, all the political problems that were going on; this was a window of opportunity to see something else, and for me, a change in my whole consciousness that I wanted to be able to think like that. I didn’t want to be hindered all the time with negativity, even though there was a lot of negative things happening, I wanted to be able to see positive things going on in life.

“I was terribly naive I think, but that maybe was not such a bad thing, because I didn’t have such strong preconceived ideas that had to be altered. I was very receptive to that kind of experience.”

That hugely positive interaction with what many people at the time would have considered a loathsome multitude of the most disorderly elements in society has served Debbie well over the years. “I didn’t meet a single asshole there,” she says.

A couple who stayed in a massive neighbouring tent were a particularly positive example. These people were constantly inviting others in to their ‘home’ despite having to content with seven children of their own.

“They were wonderful, with kids aged from 19 months to 19 years old, and they were all there with the mom and the dad in the tent.”

She swam in a lake with “loads and loads” of children. “You were washing all the mud off. It was really, really wet. That made it as well. If it had been fine weather, you would have thought you’d died and gone to heaven.”

Part Two of Debbie’s story will be published on Saturday.