EVER SINCE yellow ribbons captivated the American psyche ten years ago, various observers have tried to thread the remembrance symbol as far back through American history as the Civil War. Popular sentiment likes to believe that women began tying yellow ribbons in their hair when they waited for their sweethearts to return from battle.
Library of Congress researcher Gerald Parsons finds it more likely, however, that the romance of yellow ribbons comes from a John Wayne movie and an error in a Mitch Miller songbook.
The 1949 movie "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru, was a cavalry tale about the Old West. Before too long its theme song, "(Around Her Neck) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," was a popular hit.
The song was subsequently published in the 1961 "Sing-Along with Mitch" book which lists it as an old army marching song based on a traditional theme.
Instead, Parsons discovered that the song had been registered for copyright many times. The earliest instance, in 1917, was George Norton's version "Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who is Fur, Fur Away.)"
The song was known in many variations to college students in the 1920s and 1930s. Parsons mentions one version from Frank Lynn's "Songs for Swinging Housemothers":
"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."
Parsons further traced the song back to "All Round My Hat," a curious dialect song performed in minstrel shows in the late 1830s:
"All round my hat, I vears a green willow,/All round my hat, for twelve month and a day;/If hanyone should hax, the reason vy I vears it,/Tell them that my true love is far, far away."
This, in turn, dates back to an English street song. It was referred to in Shakespeare's "Othello," Parsons says, but without the yellow ribbons.
It seems yellow ribbons became a popular symbol only after the release of "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," the 1973 hit song which told of the homecoming given to a released prisoner.
Tony Orlando, who recorded the song, first remembers yellow ribbons used to mark the homecoming of POWs returning from Vietnam. But the practice is mainly associated with the Americans who waited more than a year for the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. Penelope Laingen, wife of the former hostage Bruce Laingen, is credited with tying the first yellow ribbon around a tree in the yard of their Bethesda home.
In an interview with the Washington Post, songwriters Larry Brown and Irwin Levine said they developed the song from a story Brown had heard in the Army, not from a Civil War tune. The story Brown heard used a white kerchief as a homecoming symbol, but the songwriters decided to substitute yellow ribbons for poetic reasons.
The newest remembrance ribbons in America -- bright orange -- are dedicated solely to the military men and women serving in the Persian Gulf. Ellen Lambing of Cincinnati introduced the new line of ribbons to America last August when her son was called to serve in Saudi Arabia. Casting about for a symbol which was not connected to other events, she began tying orange ribbons on her porch column every day. Before long, the nation had caught on.