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Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition

By Gerald E. Parsons

This article was originally printed in the Folklife Center News in the summer of 1981 (Volume IV, #2), gathering together information compiled on the subject of Yellow Ribbons following the hostage crisis in Iran. A later article: "How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol," published in 1991, is also available on this site.

The late Gerald E. Parsons was a folklorist and a librarian in the Folklife Reading Room for twenty-one years.

If folklore were an exact science, we might have predicted the blizzard of inquiries about the tradition of yellow ribbons — the ribbons that blossomed in January [1981] to welcome the American hostages home from Iran. Instead, the media storm caught us by surprise.

David Kelly of the Library's General Reference Reading Room was the first to notice the gathering force and frequency of press inquiries on the subject. On January 22 he made the rounds of the various public reference units to see if anyone knew anything about the yellow ribbon symbol. He drew a blank everywhere except in the Archive of Folk Song. There he found a file folder containing a two-year-old reference letter concerning the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," and a certain skeptical willingness to study the matter further. Not the stuff of which doctoral dissertations are made, to be sure, but enough to certify the Archive as the Library's single voice on the matter. For the next two weeks the calls poured in and the reference staff of the Manuscript Division, General Reference Reading Room, Music Division, and Information Office directed them to the Archive of Folk Song.

The basic question which the news reporters had in mind was how the symbol came into being. Many callers had ideas of their own on the subject. Some had interviewed the authors of relevant popular songs. Others had spoken to historians of the Civil War. Still others had talked with the wives of hostages. Reporters often called the Archive and then called back later with a new hypothesis, a new historical fact, or a new lead to a book reference. Very quickly a kind of collegial feeling grew up between the Archive and some of the more persistent researchers. We found ourselves functioning not so much as authorities on the subject as members of an informal team of harried investigators.

California Gold presentation banner
The online presentation California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties includes a recording and transcript
of the song "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" performed by Mrs. Byron Coffin, Sr.

In a few frenzied days, what our journalistic colleagues called "the story" was gotten out. As it has come back to us courtesy of the Library's clipping service (informally assisted by a number of devoted friends and relatives), we see that we have been liberally quoted in it. In fact, we were quoted even on the nationally televised CBS Evening News, which had the Archive's Reference Librarian associating the color yellow with "prostitution, disease, and cowardice." Mercifully, CBS permitted him to return later in the program with a more positive comment.

How did the yellow ribbon symbol become associated with the hostages? On the CBS broadcast of January 28, Penelope Laingen, wife of the U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, was shown outside her home in Bethesda, Maryland. "It just came to me," she said, "to give people something to do, rather than throw dog food at Iranians. I said, 'Why don't they tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.' That's how it started."

Mrs. Laingen's source of inspiration was a popular song by Irwin Levine and L. (Larry) Russell Brown, copyrighted in 1972 under the title "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." Recorded by some thirty different vocalists in the late 1970s, it sold millions of copies. The hit version was recorded by the popular vocal group Dawn featuring Tony Orlando. The song sketches the story of a convict riding the bus homeward after three years in prison. He tells the bus driver that he has written to his sweetheart asking her to tie a yellow ribbon on a roadside oak tree if she will have him back. The driver relates the story to other passengers and as the bus nears the tree everyone is on the edge of his seat. As the tree comes into view, the convict, unable to bear the sight should there be no ribbon in its branches, hides his eyes. Then a cheer goes up and he looks to see that, in fact, the tree is covered with yellow ribbons.

The authors of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" have been asked frequently about the origin of their song. "'Larry had heard the story in the Army,'" said Levine in an interview reprinted in the Washington Post on January 27, 1981 (page B2). "'I liked it, so we tried it. We wrote it and put it on a cassette. But then we didn't like it — it just didn't work —so we threw it away. I wish I would have kept it so I could compare it to the other one, but I recorded over it.' But three weeks later, Levine said their song idea font had run dry, so they decided to take a second stab at 'Yellow Ribbon.' They rewrote it, rewrote the music, and were pleased."

In the Army story, according to Brown, the symbol was a "white kerchief," but "white" will not scan in the melody to which Levine and Brown set their lyric. Post staff writer Saundra Saperstein also talked with Levine, and her story on the front page of the January 27th issue quotes him as saying that they made the ribbons yellow because the color seemed "musical and romantic."

At least one person has come forward to challenge the origins that Levine and Brown claim for their song. On October 14, 1971, New York Post writer Pete Hamill published in a syndicated column a story based on the returning prisoner theme. The convict had been away for four years rather than three, and he tells his story not to the bus driver, but to friendly college students on their annual migration to the Fort Lauderdale beaches. Otherwise, the story is much like that given in the popular song. Hamill sued Levine and Brown whose attorneys turned to University of Pennsylvania folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein for assistance. Goldstein, together with his student Steven Czick, looked for prior versions of the story which would invalidate Hamill's claim to authorship. They found several such examples, and the suit was dropped. When Reader's Digest printed a condensed version of the Hamill column, "Going Home," which appeared on pages 64 and 65 of the January 1972 issue, he introduced it with the following headnote:

I first heard this story a few years ago from a girl I had met in New York's Greenwich Village. The girl told me that she had been one of the participants. Since then, others to whom I have related the tale have said that they had read a version of it in some forgotten book, or had been told it by an acquaintance who said that it actually happened to a friend. Probably the story is one of these mysterious bits of folklore that emerge from the national subconscious to be told anew in one form or another. The cast of characters shifts, the message endures. I like to think that it did happen, somewhere, sometime.

Hamill's story become the basis of a segment of the "Perpetual People Machine," an ABC-TV magazine-format program produced by Alvin H. Perlmutter and aired in 1972. James Earl Jones played the part of the returning prisoner.

To summarize the ground covered thus far: it appears that the plot of the song that inspired Penne Laingen is drawn from modern urban oral tradition, while the choice of the yellow ribbon as symbol is conditioned by requirements of versification. But beyond these requirements, there remains another possible source for Levine and Brown's adoption of the yellow ribbon. In 1949 Argosy Pictures released a motion picture starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru which was called She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The picture was popular and the theme song, "(Round Her Neck) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," became a song hit. The composers for the movie were M. Ottner and Leroy Parker. Not surprisingly, their lyrics make reference to the characters and events in the film. But, in one form or another, this song long predates the movie. It has been registered for copyright a number of times, the earliest claim for it being the composition of George A. Norton in 1917. Norton gave as his title "Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For her Lover Who Is Fur, Fur Away)." It has been reported as a college song in the 1920s and 1930s, in which environment it displayed much variation, both in its symbology and in its suitability for public expression. Frank Lynn's Songs for Swingin' Housemothers (San Francisco: Fearon publishers, 1963, p. 42) provides a verse typical of the college type:

Around her knee, she wore a purple garter;
She wore it in the Springtime, and in the month of May,
And if you asked her why the Hell she wore it,
She wore it for her Williams man who's far, far away.

Other emblematic appurtenances of the young lady include a baby carriage and a shotgun wielding father. The color of her ribbon or garter could be varied in order to implicate a student of an appropriate college: crimson for Harvard, orange for Princeton, and so on. It was a slightly refined version from this college tradition, rather than the movie theme song, that became a great favorite on the early 1960s television show "Sing Along with Mitch." It appears on pages 22 and 24 of the Sing Along with Mitch Songbook (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1961), where an accompanying headnote describes it as an "old army marching song (based on a traditional theme)." Although the second verse is essentially the "purple garter" type, the first verse begins "Around her neck, she wore a yellow ribbon."

It seems likely that Mitch Miller's popular printing a decade after the motion picture helped to foster the perhaps mistaken idea that wearing a yellow ribbon as a token of remembrance was a custom of the Civil War era. Letters expressing personal recollections and family stories of ribbons being displayed by wives and sweethearts of men in the U.S. Cavalry have reached the Archive of Folk Song. It is curious, however, that the half dozen anthologies of Civil War songs in our reading room do not offer "Round Her Neck" as a popular song. Furthermore, Civil War historian Shelby Foote was quizzed on the subject, but could not recall any reference to the practice of wearing yellow ribbons (Washington Post, January 27, 1981). Although it is perfectly plausible that the families of Union army troops did adopt such a token, prudent historiography would demand evidence from a diary, photograph, or source contemporary to the war. So far, no such evidence has come to our attention, and we must keep open to the possibility that the distant recollections of the Civil War have been grafted onto the symbolism of a much later popular motion picture. Occurrences of this sort are often noticed in the study of folk balladry in which the anachronistic combinations are among the more interesting features of the genre.

All Round My Hat broadside
This sheet of song lyrics is a version of the lyrics to All Round My Hat published by Aunder and Johnson (Philadelphia, n.d.), a song that appears to be a precursor of the song Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This image is found in the online presentation, America Singing: Nineteenth Century Song Sheets

Whether Levine and Brown were consciously or unconsciously influenced by "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is not known. But if they were, it would be worth noting that the song that influenced them has a pedigree in tradition that stretches far beyond the college environment of the 1920s. In A History of Popular Music In America (New York: Random House, 1948, p. 83-84), Sigmund Spaeth writes that a similar song was heard in minstrel shows in this country around 1838:

About this time there appeared from the press of George Endicott ("Lithographer, Pianofortes, Music") a strange dialect song called All Round My Hat, which is unquestionably the ancestor of the later Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with all its variants and imitations. The original, "written by J. Ansell, Esq." (John Hansell) and "composed and arranged by John Valentine," "as sung by Jack Reeve, with the most Unbounded Applause," pictures an English vegetable-peddler, with an overloaded little donkey, pictorially on the cover and almost as vividly in the text. The chorus, with its curiously familiar close, runs as follows:

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.

(The temptation to repeat "far away" in the modern style is almost irresistible.)

The Philadelphia printing is evidently copied from a British source. In his annotation of "All Round My Cap" in the English Journal of the Folk-Song Society (vol. 8, no. 34, 1930, pp. 202-204), A. Martin Freeman

describes the above chorus as "the sole relic of an earlier song, seized up, together with its engaging tune, to provide sport in the music-halls and be whistled by every errand-boy, for it became one of the most popular street songs of a hundred years ago" (the 1830s). That "earlier song" to which Freeman alludes can be traced almost three centuries further back into English tradition. It was printed in Thomas Proctor's Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, published in 1578 (pages 83 to 86 in the 1926 Harvard University Press printing edited by Hyden E. Rollins), and Shakespeare has Desdemona refer to it as an old song (Othello, Act IV, scene 3).

In its long descent from Tudor lyric to Cockney ballad to American minstrel ditty to ribald college song to motion picture theme to popular recording, it may be seen that green willows have faded into garters and ribbons of every hue and that the symbol of constancy in love has been anything but constant itself. Peter Kennedy remarks in his Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London: Cassell, 1975, p. 343):

Wearing a flower or, as in All Round My Hat, a green willow, were demonstrative
symbols of faithfulness and chastity, and many of our love songs make use of the
symbols of flowers and trees. Over the years the early significances have been
forgotten and the symbols have sometimes changed their meanings. Green laurel
has stood for young love, or fickleness, but also faithfulness, and has even been
associated with Irish political loyalty.

In that flickering light, the transformation of a willow garland into a yellow ribbon seems natural enough. At the same time, it would be difficult to argue on the basis of evidence in the history of the song that the yellow ribbon has any claim to being a traditional symbol.

Folklorists who have had occasion to discuss the matter with the Archive staff have been bothered by two decidedly untraditional aspects of the yellow ribbon. First, the color seems expressly contrary to tradition. We have already noted that yellow seems to have appeared in the two popular songs that bear on this for reasons of scansion rather than to evoke ancient associations. The discussion of color symbolism in Charles Platt's Popular Superstitions (London: H. Jenkins, 1925) suggests that white might have been a more appropriate choice, and indeed, in at least two versions of the returning prisoner story taken from oral tradition the symbol is a white ribbon or kerchief.

The second aspect that makes folklorists reluctant to view this as a traditional expression is the matter of structural inversion. In the song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon...," the theme is that of a returning prodigal begging forgiveness — and receiving it. The former hostages, however, returned home as heroes.

For all the journalistic interest in it, the yellow ribbon story yields few facts of the sort we would like to find on page one of the morning edition. To be sure, the dates and title of the various printings can be reported with confidence, but the relevance of these publications to the spectacular expression of welcome that occurred this past January remains unclear. The account given above cannot be regarded as more than a preliminary statement focused on the genetic relationship between the ribbon symbol and two songs that moved back and forth, as we have seen, between folk and popular culture. It omits many suggestions and references to other, and perhaps even more interesting, lines of inquiry that have come to us from far and wide. For all of the effort of the dozens of people who have furthered the research on the subject, the viability of the yellow ribbon as a traditional symbol is still an open question. The Archive of Folk Song eagerly solicits further comments and will be most happy to share our files with anyone who wishes to study the matter in depth.

It would not be possible to thank everyone who has contributed thoughts or references to the Archive's burgeoning yellow ribbon file. Among those who have been most generous, however, are: Thomas Ahern (Associated Press), Elizabeth Betts (intern, Archive of Folk Song), Jennifer Bolch (Dallas Times Herald), Hal Cannon (State of Utah, Division of Fine Art), Kathy Condon (George Washington University), Harold Closter (Smithsonian Institution), Susan Dwyer-Schick (Pennsylvania State University), Austin and Alta Fife (Utah State University, retired), Kenneth S. Goldstein (University of Pennsylvania), Archie Green (University of Texas), Wayland Hand (University of California, Los Angeles), Paul Michele and Julie Miller (interns, Archive of Folk Song), Jack Santino (Smithsonian Institution), Saundra Saperstein (Washington Post), Jennifer Siebens (CBS Evening news), and Bert Wilson (Utah State University)


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