Is the custom of displaying yellow ribbons for an absent loved-one a genuine American tradition? That question was, and remains, "number one" on the American Folklife Center's hit parade of yellow ribbon reference inquiries. Often this same question has been asked in a more focused form: People will say, "Is this a Civil War tradition?" --as if an association with that central experience in American history would certify its authenticity.
In the last year or so, we of the reference staff at the Center have become aware of a certain shift: a movement from asking about a Civil War connection to asserting one. Some assertions on this subject have verged on the pugnacious; nearly all have made reference to the song "Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." That song was recorded for the Archive of Folk Culture in 1938 by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California, but it is much older. For example, there is a Philadelphia printing from 1838 that copies still older British versions. Indeed in the last act of Othello, Desdamona sings one of the song's lyric ancestors.
One version or another of "Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" has been popular now for four hundred years; so it would not surprise me to learn that someone sang it sometime during the Civil War. All I can say for sure, however, is that it was sung in a movie that was set in the western United States at a time just after the Civil War--a 1949 release starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru. In fact, Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (the movie) took its title from the song. This film remains the only demonstrable connection between yellow ribbons and the Civil War that has come to my attention, and that a rather weak one.
If the custom of wearing or decorating with or displaying yellow ribbons doesn't trace to the Civil War, where does it come from? It begins, as far as I can tell, not as a custom at all, and not as a song. It begins as a folk tale--a legend, actually. Here it is in the earliest version I've found:
It is the story of two men in a railroad train. One was so reserved that his companion had difficulty in persuading him to talk about himself. He was, he said at length, a convict returning from five years' imprisonment in a distant prison, but his people were too poor to visit him and were too uneducated to be very articulate on paper. Hence he had written to them to make a sign for him when he was released and came home. If they wanted him, they should put a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood close to the railroad track at the bottom of the garden, and he would get off the train, but if they did not want him, they were to do nothing and he would stay on the train and seek a new life elsewhere. He said that they were nearing his home town and that he couldn't bear to look. His new friend said that he would look and took his place by the window to watch for the apple tree which the other had described to him.
In a minute he put a hand on his companion's arm. "There it is," he cried. "It's all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons."
That passage comes from, of all places, a 1959 book on prison reform. The title is Star Wormwood, and it was written by the eminent Pennsylvania jurist Curtis Bok. Bok says it was told to him by Kenyon J. Scudder, first superintendent of Chino penitentiary. I take this information as evidence that the story was in oral tradition as early as the mid-1950s. I note also the implication of a certain occupational interest in the tale.
During the 1960s, the returning prisoner story appeared in religious publications and circulated in oral tradition among young people active in church groups. In this environment, both the versions that appeared in print and those collected from oral tradition highlighted similarities to the New Testament "Parable of the Prodigal Son."
In October of 1971, Pete Hamill wrote a piece for the New York Post called "Going Home." In it, college students on a bus trip to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale make friends with an ex-convict who is watching for a yellow handkerchief on a roadside oak. Hamill claimed to have heard this story in oral tradition.
In June of 1972, nine months later, The Readers Digest reprinted "Going Home." Also in June 1972, ABC-TV aired a dramatized version of it in which James Earl Jones played the role of the returning ex-con. One month-and-a-half after that, Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown registered for copyright a song they called "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." The authors said they heard the story while serving in the military. Pete Hamill was not convinced and filed suit for infringement.
One factor that may have influenced Hamill's decision to do so was that, in May 1973, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" sold 3 million records in three weeks. When the dust settled, BMI calculated that radio stations had played it 3 million times--that's seventeen continuous years of airplay. Hamill dropped his suit after folklorists working for Levine and Brown turned up archival versions of the story that had been collected before "Going Home" had been written.
In January 1975, Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder of Watergate fame, festooned her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome her husband home from jail. The event was televised on the evening news (one of the viewers was Penne Laingen). And thus a modern folk legend concerning a newly released prisoner was transformed into a popular song, and the popular song, in turn, transformed into a ritual enactment. Notice that Jeb Stuart Magruder's return to his home exactly parallels the situation in both the folk narrative and the popular song. The new development, at this point, was that Gail Magruder put the story into action.
The next big step was to make the ribbon into an emblem--not for the return of a forgiven prodigal--but for the return of an imprisoned hero. And that step was Penne Laingen's: On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Ambassador Bruce Laingen and the rest of the embassy staff hostage.
Six weeks later, on December 10, the Washington Post printed two short articles by Barbara Parker: "Coping With `IRage'" and "Penne Laingen's Wait." The first article began "Americans are seething" and went on to quote psychologists concerning the widespread and intense emotional distress caused by the hostage crisis. The article presented a helpful list of things to do to "vent irage": "ring church bells at noontime . . . organize a neighborhood coffee to discuss the crisis and establish one ground rule only: no physical violence . . . play tennis and `whack the hell' out of the ball . . . offer family prayers or moments of silence . . . turn on car headlights during the day . . . send gifts to the needy `in the name of the hostages,'" and, of course, the old stand-by, "conduct candlelight vigils."
Then in the Post article come the words "Laingen, who has 'tied a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree'. . . suggests that as something else others might do." The article concludes with Penne Laingen saying, "So I'm standing and waiting and praying . . . and one of these days Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon. It's going to be out there until he does." According to my current understanding, this is the first announcement that the yellow ribbon symbol had become a banner through which families could express their determination to be reunited.
The next major step was to move the ribbon out of the Laingen's front yard and into most of the front yards in the United States. That move came about in a particularly American way. With a wonderful exhibition of the spirit that Alexis de Tocqueville thought was a cardinal virtue of our society, the hostage families met and formed an association: the Family Liaison Action Group (FLAG). FLAG quickly found allies among existing humanitarian organizations, most notably an organization called No Greater Love.
The goal of FLAG and its allies was to find a way to bring moral force to bear on behalf of the hostages. They seem to have formed their strategy around Emerson's maxim that "A good symbol is the best argument, and is a missionary to persuade thousands." The symbol they choose for their argument was, of course, the yellow ribbon. Aided by support from four AFL-CIO unions, No Greater Love made and distributed ten thousand "yellow ribbon pins." These went to union members, members of hostage families, college students, and in a stroke of marketing genius, to TV weather forecasters. Meanwhile FLAG sent the pins to Junior Chambers of Commerce, scouting organizations, and governors' wives.
Ultimately, the thing that makes the yellow ribbon a genuinely traditional symbol is neither its age nor its putative association with the American Civil War, but rather its capacity to take on new meanings, to fit new needs and, in a word, to evolve.
And it is evolving still. During the Persian Gulf Crisis, for example, there emerged a new impulse to combine yellow ribbons with hand-painted signs, American flags, conventional Christmas ornaments, seasonal banners, and other such elements to create elaborate, decorative displays--displays that one scholar has termed "folk assemblages."
Because the yellow ribbon is very much a living tradition, there is no way to tell who among us may help to steer its course, or in what direction. Last winter, I was in a distant city and needed to buy a spray of flowers. I found a flower shop and explained to the proprietress 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.
Well, it's a long way from a folktale about an ex-convict's homecoming to an incipient funeral custom. 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."