|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.