Skip to comments.Why Do We Put Up Yellow Ribbons During Wars?
Posted on 03/31/2003 12:13:32 AM PST by Tamzee
Why Do We Put Up Yellow Ribbons During Wars?
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 is 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 that 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 is 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.
For the same reason that you "knock three times on the ceiling if you want" someone. (Twice on the pipe if the answer is no.)
To lower the unemployment rate by three has-been performers.
We have a big, bright silk yellow ribbon tied to one of the corner pillars on our front porch.
The United States Flag (4 x 6) flies about ten feet down the porch rails.
Took a pic of my daughter-in-law with that backdrop (she had a small yellow ribbon on her lapel) today - sending it email to my son in the sandbox.
We all want him to know he is our hero.
Hmm, the "aforementioned John Wayne movie took place after the Civil War, with ex confederate officers serving as enlisted troopers in the "Yankee" calvary in the west. Yellow was, and is, the color of the stripes on the pants of Calvarymen. Artillerymen wore "red", for strips and other trim, going back to at least 1777, thus the term "redlegs" for them. Infantry in at least some cases wore green. I don't know what colors engineers, and dragoons wore back then.
By WILLIAM WATSON
Pocono Record Managing Editor
Here come the yellow ribbons again.
People are putting them up to show support for our troops and to express a hope that they return safely.
The Associated Press already did a story about the return of the yellow ribbons, tracing the origin back to when Iran took Americans hostage more than two decades ago.
The story goes back a lot farther than that.
Try 400 years, in certain aspects.
How the yellow ribbon became a modern American symbol of safe return is pretty amazing. This ribbon is made up of thread from a couple of different places, woven together to make a symbol that was implanted in the popular culture by a movie and a couple of songs and turned into a reality by people with a need to express their feelings at a time of national crisis.
The ribbons came out during the Gulf War in 1991, and the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress was so besieged with inquiries seeking the origin of the "tradition" that a folklorist there was put to work trying to figure out where it came from.
Here's the highlights on what the Folklife Center found:
It goes back farther than the "Tony Orlando and Dawn" 1970s hit song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," although that song definitely brought an old "story" to light.
If you go back far enough, you reach a passage in Shakespeare about a green wil- low garland that appears to be the great-great-grandfather of the yellow ribbon except that Desdemona, in "Othello," teases us further by referring to it as an even older "song."
Between Shakespeare and Tony Orlando stands John Wayne and the 1949 movie "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." It is both a movie title and a song title, and the song can be, somewhat tediously, traced back through time to Shakespeare. The theme in this one is remembrance and return Wayne portrays Nathan Brittles, a veteran cavalry officer who retires but is welcomed back to service in a crisis.
The tradition has nothing to do with the Civil War. The Folklife Center found that there are two distinct themes that have been mingled to produce today's yellow ribbon phenomenon. The oldest produces "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."
The other, newer theme may be the oldest urban legend we know. It apparently started in the 1800s with a probably made-up story told by a prison superintendent about a convict who served his time, was illiterate and worked out an arrangement with his family that if they would welcome him back they would put a white ribbon on a tree outside the home. If he saw it, he'd come home. If not, he'd keep on moving. They covered the tree with white ribbons, exactly the theme of the convict returning to his love that Tony Orlando sang about in the 1970s.
According to the folklife center, the author of the song changed a white ribbon into a yellow ribbon because it "scanned" better.
That wasn't the first time things got changed, however. The "symbol" originally started out as a garland of green willow worn around the head in an ancient English song about remembering a loved one far away. A version of that song is in "Othello" (Act IV, scene 3) and is reprised in English theatre with this 1800s ditty, which is set in what is supposed to be Cockney dialect:
All round my hat, I vears a green villow,
All round my hat, for a twelvemonth and a day;
If hanyone should hax, the reason vy I vears it,
Tell them that my true love is far, far away.
Compare this with the song "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."
Around her hair she wore a yellow ribbon. She wore it in the springtime, in the merry month of May. And if you asked her why she wore the ribbon She wore it for her soldier who was far, far away.
Same song, lyrics slightly changed the movie was about the U.S. Cavalry, and the cavalry's color for uniform trim is yellow.
Tony Orlando recorded "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," the "prodigal son" theme of homecoming, in the early 1970s; in 1973 the record sold a million copies. In January 1975, Jeb Stuart Magruder, one of President Richard Nixon's evil minions, returned from serving a jail sentence for crimes committed on Nixon's behalf. His wife, Gail Magruder, covered her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome him home she converted the song into reality for millions of people, including Penne Laingen.
Who was Penne Laingen? She is the wife of Bruce Laingen, who in 1979 was U.S. ambassador to Iran. He and others were seized by the Iranians and held hostage. And Penne Laingen, in a symbol that resonated immediately with everyone, put a yellow ribbon on a tree outside her house and said it would stay there until her husband returned and untied it.
When that was publicized by the media, the frenzy was on. People who were frustrated by everything else showed their support for the hostages by the simple act of putting yellow ribbon on their homes, their cars, their trees and their chests.
The yellow ribbons came out again in 1991 during the Gulf War and are coming out again now. The late Gerald E. Parsons of the American Folklife Center wrote about the incorporation of the yellow ribbon in our national psyche as a universal symbol for remembrance in 1991.
"I was in a distant city and needed to buy a spray of flowers. I found a flower shop and explained to the proprietor that I needed an arrangement that would be appropriate for a cemetery ornament."
"'And would you like some yellow ribbon to tie around it?'" she asked matter-of-factly.
"I had to stop and think about that for a minute. But never one to thwart the evolution of a new American custom, I said, 'Yes, ma'am. I will take some yellow ribbon. Thank you.' "
For information on the evolution of the yellow ribbon as a modern American symbol: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/ribbons/ribbons.html.