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Features / Woodstock 50 years on: ‘People can pull together’

FIFTY years ago, Skeld resident Debbie Hammond and five friends headed off on a special journey. In the second part of our Woodstock feature Debbie tells Peter Johnson how five years after the ultimate music festival she found herself in Papa Stour.

Woodstock was actually quite a well-organised event, Debbie says looking back, with the main problem being finding out who was playing where on the vast site.

“You also had to find ways to eat. Sometimes I just sat and watched all the people moving around; the different scenarios going on around you; the music. There were some fantastic claes, some real interesting looking people.”

Debbie missed opening act Richie Havens but said that Hendrix deserved his top slot, going out in a blaze of glory on the Monday night with his inimitable take of the Star Spangled Banner.

She was also wowed by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Tim Hardin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and her favourite – The Band.

She also heard The Incredible String Band for the first time, which to her were an unknown group. Delayed by a massive electrical storm that sent the hordes cowering in their tents while rain came down in Biblical proportions, The Incredible String Band played a day later and really put the hook in Debbie.

“That inspired me to find out more about Scotland because they were amazing.”

The change of slot meant that The Incredible String Band were more accessible than some of the other acts such as The Who and Janice Joplin who she could only view from afar.

“It was really overpowering to be honest – it was like being on the biggest acid trip, and not. The people I was with did not take any drugs at all, so I didn’t. I don’t think I could have coped with it if there had been any drugs to be honest,” Debbie muses.

It was no secret there were drugs at Woodstock – “an awful lot”, mainly LSD and marijuana – but there were also tents to look after people coming down from a bum trip.

“It was just a complete coming together of a consciousness that does not usually happen – a) because it is not allowed to and b) because most people are caught up in their everyday bullshit and they do not allow themselves to unite in that way.

“It was an overpowering experience and you were totally out of control – on no drugs.

“I think it was really a fluke how it came to be such a large number of people, and how well everybody managed, because the facilities were no there for that number of folk.

“Some would have said it was an absolute disaster, a nightmare, but nobody I ever met. It was absolutely a phenomenon that came together beyond anybody’s belief.”

Of course Debbie’s parents were worried sick by her going AWOL to Woodstock. Her friend Sarah had, on the other hand, cleared it with her parents first.

After finishing her school days Debbie went to college in North Florida and studied to be a nurse. At age 21, she went to Europe where she travelled for a year before arriving in the UK on her way back to the States.

In August 1974 she ended up in Papa Stour after having met some French people who had been wildly impressed with life in the island and who advised Debbie to visit Britain “starting from the top.”

It cost so much to get to Shetland, and what with arriving in Papa at the start of an Indian summer, she decided to stay a few months and met then fisherman Dave Hammond, who she has been with since.

According to Debbie it was fate. Hoofing it to Papa she got a lift from an old couple driving out to see family in West Burrafirth. From there, she started to walk to Sandness with the intention of catching the ferry.

“There was nothing – sheep, clouds, hills. I had no idea how far I had walked.”

She waved down a red bus driven by P.I. Isbister and asked if the bus went to Papa. “I’m sorry mam, this bus does not swim,” came the reply. But by excellent fortune the bus was heading for a rare rendezvous with the Papa Stour ferry.

“I was arriving to the boat, at the pier, at that moment [the bus] taking folk to Lerwick and the boat going back to Papa Stour. Imagine if the boat was not going for a week, or whatever, you think I would still be standing waiting for the boat? I would have gone somewhere else. I would never have gone to Papa Stour.”

There were about 50/50 hippies and locals living in Papa at the time. Debbie very much liked the people she had met in France who had lived in Papa, so she knew she would get on well there, and, as it turned out, she was made very welcome.

Perhaps oddly, Debbie only went to one more big festival, in Colorado, which was nothing like Woodstock. “I was ruined,” she said. “I was never a festival follower after that.

And what did she make of it all? “I suppose that people, when put in the right environment, can pull together, rather than pull apart. It was easier to see the similarities, rather than the differences, even though I was totally different in my upbringing.

“That made it very special. Maybe a lot of folk already knew that and they were going to something to reaffirm it. I didn’t know that, so I was not reaffirming it, I was learning it.

“It would be really interesting to meet other folk who had been there – now. It would be really interesting to speak to some of the children who were there and how it influenced their way of life.

“America’s a real mixed bag, but that peace and love generation, they were different, there is no question about it.

“The raw edge of human spirit – that’s what made it so special. Anybody who was there would be moved by it for the rest of their lives.”