"Tie a Yellow Ribbon" Tradition Is Recent, Folklorists Say

Symbol's history stretches back little more than 30 years

Yellow ribbon tied around an oak tree
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Whenever American service men and women lay down their lives for their country, yellow ribbons can be seen popping up like spring posies in towns and cities all across the United States. You may recall the phenomenon from the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of the early 2000s, when such remembrances adorned tree trunks, front doors and lapel pins in honor of the troops overseas.

What does it mean?

At its broadest, the gesture signifies home front support for American military personnel and the war effort in general. At its most personal, it signifies the hope that a loved one participating in a distant conflict will return safe and sound. In any case, "tying a yellow ribbon" has become such a familiar symbol that people assume its origins to be quite old, though according to folklorists the practice as we know it stretches back little more than 30 years.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

According to one popular misconception -- evidently a by-product of the 1949 John Wayne film "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," in which the female lead did what the title suggests to express her undying love for a cavalry officer -- the custom originated during or just after the American Civil War. But even though the motif of that film, not to mention its title and theme song, derived from a folk ballad dating back hundreds of years in various versions, there's no historical evidence that Americans of the Civil War period (or any period since, through the mid-20th century) actually used yellow ribbons for that purpose.

According to research published by the late Gerald E. Parsons, longtime librarian of the Folklife Reading Room of the Library of Congress, the custom didn't exist at all before 1980, when the idea of displaying yellow ribbons in honor of the 52 Americans held hostage by Iranian militants seemingly emerged from nowhere and took the country by storm -- a tribute said to be indirectly inspired by the popular song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," composed in 1972 and recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn, which in turn was inspired by an oral folktale circulating since the 1950s (for the particulars, see Gerald Parsons' essay: "Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition").

From Jailbirds to G.I.s

Granted, the lyrics of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," not to mention the folktale on which they were based, tell the story of a paroled convict's prospective homecoming, not that of a soldier stationed overseas. Similarly, the Iran hostage crisis involved civilians held captive on foreign soil as opposed to military personnel in combat. But once the basic connection had been drawn between the plight of Americans endangered in conflicts abroad and displaying yellow ribbons as a form of tribute, the stage was set for a fresh application -- first in 1991 to the troops who fought in the Gulf War, and now, 12 years later, to U.S. forces sent back to the region to effect a "regime change."

The very fact that this shift took place, argued Parsons, lends the yellow ribbon weight as a folk tradition in spite of its brief historical lifespan. "Ultimately," he wrote, "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."

Last updated 09/05/15