Everywhere I go these days I see yellow ribbons tied around oak trees, light poles, small animals, etc. These supposedly are 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? –Steve Langer, Chicago

Your tax dollars at work, friends–the Library of Congress has pieced together the whole story, or at least most of it. Here are the highlights:

Yellow ribbons first emerged as a national symbol in January 1981, when they sprouted like crabgrass to welcome home the Americans held hostage in Iran. The whole thing was apparently dreamed up by Penelope Laingen, wife of Bruce Laingen, U.S. charge d’affaires in Tehran. She was inspired by 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. Presumably Mrs. Laingen did not think the hostages were crooks; rather, like the narrator of the song, they had been held captive for a long time and were uncertain what kind of reception they’d get upon their return home–that is, until they saw the yellow ribbons.

Larry Brown claimed to have heard the story on which the song was based in the Army–only the centerpiece wasn’t a yellow ribbon, it was a white kerchief. “White kerchief,” however, wouldn’t fit the meter, so yellow ribbon it became. In addition to being trochaic, yellow seemed “musical and romantic,” Levine said.

The returning-convict story was apparently a widely circulated urban legend. New York Post writer Pete Hamill had related it 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 and the suit was dropped.

At this point the thread starts to get a little tangled. Brown and Levine said they had invented the yellow ribbon angle, but if they did they were following a well-trodden path–there are several much earlier songs also featuring yellow ribbons and distant sweethearts. In 1917 one George A. Norton copyrighted “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yellow Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Fur, Fur Away).” 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.

The ancestor of all these songs apparently was the popular 1838 minstrel-show song “All Round My Hat” (surely you remember it), which sported the line, “All round my hat I [wear] a green willow [because] my true love is far, far away.” The song didn’t scan very well, which maybe is why a yellow ribbon was substituted in later versions. At any rate, songs with green willows and distant lovers go back at least to 1578.

So there’s the story, such as it is. It should be noted that yellow ribbon is not a traditional symbol. The evidence inclines one to think it was purely a metrical convenience hit upon independently by several tunesmiths. Also, 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 and is purely an invention of Hollywood scriptwriters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.