How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol
by Gerald E. Parsons
This article was originally printed in the Folklife Center News in
the summer of 1991 (Volume XIII, #3, pp. 9-11). At that time the Persian
Gulf War had inspired Americans to decorate their lapels and their front
porches with yellow ribbons for the soldiers sent into combat, once again
generating a storm of questions to librarians and folklorists about the
origin of the custom. An article written ten years earlier, just after
the Iran hostage crisis, Yellow Ribbons: Ties
with Traditions, 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.
Penne and Bruce Laingen with the yellow ribbon Mrs. Laingen tied around the
oak tree in her front yard in 1979 when her husband was held hostage in
Iran. Mrs. Laingen donated the ribbon to the Library of Congress in 1991.
Photo by Greg Jenkins.
During the last decade, no single form of expression documented in the
Archive of Folk Culture has stimulated more letters, more phone calls,
more in-person inquiries than the yellow ribbon. The questions began in
1981 when the Library of Congress received a blizzard of inquiries, particularly
from the news media, about the history of yellow ribbons then being displayed
everywhere in America in support of Americans being held hostage in Iran.
The basic question that 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 wives of hostages
in Iran in 1980-81. Still others had talked to historians of the Civil
Eventually a body of information accumulated, and I wrote an article for Folklife
Center News entitled "Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition" (volume
IV, no. 2, April 1981). The article outlined the symbolic use of the
ribbons in story, song, and real life; and the Folklife Center staff
made good use of the article this year , ten years after its publication,
when a second blizzard of questions came in about the ribbons displayed
for soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
For further reading:
Pershing, Linda and Margaret R. Yocom. 1996. "The Yellow Ribboning
of the USA: Contested Meanings in the Construction of a Political Symbol." Western
Jack Santino, "Yellow Ribbons and Seasonal Flags: The Folk Assemblege
of War," Journal of American Folklore, 105, #1 (1992), pp.
Tad Tuleja, "Closing the Circle: Yellow Ribbons and the Redemption
of the Past," Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in
North America edited by Tad Tuleja, Logan, Utah, Utah State University
Press, 1997, pp. 311-328.