Why do we put up yellow ribbons during wars, hostage crises, etc.?

Dear Cecil:

Everywhere I went during the Persian Gulf war I saw yellow ribbons tied around oak trees, light poles, small animals, etc. These supposedly were to show concern for our troops in the Middle East. However, as I recall, in the song (you know, "tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree," blah blah blah) the guy in question is returning from jail. Presumably he went to jail for a reason. Do the troops really appreciate being compared to a criminal? A friend tells me that the song is based on a true story, and that the fellow's crime was something along the lines of stealing bread to feed orphans. True? And why yellow?

Cecil replies:

After a heroic research effort involving New Jersey talent agents, Iran-hostage spouses, and the Library of Congress, I think I’ve finally pieced together the story on yellow ribbons. Here are the highlights:

Yellow ribbons first emerged as a national symbol in January 1981, when they sprouted like weeds to welcome home the Americans held hostage in Iran. The whole thing was started by Penelope (Penne) Laingen, wife of Bruce Laingen, U.S. charge d’affaires in Teheran. Ms. Laingen says she was inspired by two things: (1) the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree, written in 1972 by Irwin Levine and Larry Brown and made famous by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and (2) the prior example of one Gail Magruder. Ms. Laingen writes:

Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder of Watergate fame, put yellow ribbons on her front porch to welcome her husband home from jail. This event was televised on the evening news.

At this point … I stepped in to change the legend and song from the return of a forgiven prodigal to the return of an imprisoned hero. Interestingly, I had remembered the Gail Magruder ribbons, but I had only a vague understanding of the Levine-Brown song lyrics, although I knew it involved a “prisoner,” which my husband surely was in Iran.

Penne’s aim, and that of the other hostage families she was in contact with, was to keep public attention focused on the prisoners. Various ideas had been proposed or tried early on, including asking people to turn on their porch and car lights, honk their horns, ring church bells, display the flag, wear Vietnam-type POW bracelets, etc. But none of these schemes proved satisfactory.

Finally Penne hit on yellow ribbons. She hung one made from yellow oilcloth on an oak tree in her front yard in December 1979, and mentioned it to a Washington Post reporter who was doing a story on how hostage families were dealing with stress. The reporter described what Penne had done in her article and yellow ribbons soon were appearing nationwide. When the buildup for the Persian Gulf war began the ribbons appeared anew and now appear to be firmly established as a symbol of solidarity with distant loved ones in danger.

OK, but where did the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree come from? At this point the ribbon story starts to get a little tangled.

Larry Brown claimed he heard the returning-convict story on which the song was based in the army. Apparently it was a widely circulated urban legend — so widely circulated, in fact, that it got the songwriters into a bit of hot water. New York Post writer Pete Hamill had related the story in a 1971 column with a few different details — for one thing, the convict told his story not to a bus driver but to some college students headed for Fort Lauderdale.

Hamill claimed he’d heard the story from one of the students, a woman he’d met in Greenwich Village. He sued Brown and Levine for stealing his work, but the defense turned up still earlier versions of the tale (Penne Laingen quotes a version from a book published in 1959) and the suit was dropped.

A big difference in many of the earlier stories was that the centerpiece wasn’t a yellow ribbon, it was a white ribbon or kerchief. But Levine claimed “white kerchief” wouldn’t fit the meter, so yellow ribbon it became. In addition to being trochaic, yellow seemed “musical and romantic,” he reportedly said.

But it wasn’t quite that simple. The 1949 John Wayne movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured a hit song of the same name, and the line appears in a 1961 Mitch Miller songbook. A source who knows Brown and Levine says they (or at least Levine) privately admit they got the concept of yellow ribbons from the 1949 song.

The movie tune was a rewrite of a song copyrighted in 1917 by George A. Norton titled Round Her Neck She Wears a Yellow Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Fur, Fur Away). This in turn was apparently based on the popular 1838 minstrel-show song All Round My Hat (surely you remember it), which sported the line, “All round my hat I [w]ears a green willow [because] my true love is far, far away.” Doesn’t scan (or parse) very well, which no doubt explains the switch to yellow ribbons in the twentieth century. Songs with green willows and distant lovers go back at least to 1578.

It’s interesting that the ribbons and willows in these songs simply serve as a reminder of a distant loved one, since that’s pretty much the only significance of yellow ribbons today. There’s no suggestion of the returning prodigal such as we find in the Levine-Brown song, or even of imprisonment, as was the case during the Iran hostage crisis. So I guess we can say yellow ribbons do have some grounding in tradition, although it’s ribbons rather than green willows chiefly as a metrical convenience.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no indication that yellow ribbons had any symbolic value during the American Civil War. The notion that they did stems from the aforementioned John Wayne movie, which featured soldiers in Civil War-era uniforms.

Ribbon rap ripped

Dear Cecil:

The first widespread “yellow ribbon fever” was not in 1981 but rather 1973, when the POWs were released from Vietnam. I distinctly remember newsreels of wives, daughters, and sweethearts wearing or displaying this emblem when greeting their loved ones. In fact, I believe the song’s massive popularity at the time was due to popular belief that the “prison” mentioned in the lyrics was the Hanoi Hilton.

The “white kerchief” you mention as a precursor of the yellow ribbon is alluded to in medieval and renaissance literature as a token of affection from a fair lady to her noble knight as he goes into battle. In fact, one of the pieces of “evidence” in the trial of Anne Boleyn was a handkerchief she allegedly gave to one of Henry VIII’s soldiers. (Henry, enraged at this “proof” of adultery, had her executed.)

Cecil replies:

It’s possible yellow ribbons were displayed here and there in 1973, but they weren’t the national phenomenon they became in 1979-1981. I found no references to ribbons in contemporary press accounts of the POW release. That’s not surprising, because most of the POWs were home before the song became a hit. The first POWs were released February 12, most were home by the middle of March and the last was out April 1. Dawn’s version of Tie a Yellow Ribbon debuted on the Cash Box singles chart on February 2 at number 88 and didn’t reach number 1 until May.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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