Cynical? Me?

For a long time, I have cringed at the whole yellow ribbon thing. The last thing I need is someone carving open my head and pouring hot, jagged bits of Tony Orlando and Dawn into it. But that’s not all. It’s the principle of the thing.

Jane: How can I show everyone how devoted I am to my soldier boy?
Joe: Hey, I know! Why don’t you reenact a sappy 70’s song about a guy getting out of prison!
Jane: Why didn’t I think of that?
Joe: Probably that brain cell you have left…

It’s always bugged the hell out of me. I mean, I like to jump on the bandwagon as much as the next opportunistic creep, but equating soldiers with ex-cons? What do I look like? A protest marcher?

Well, unfortunately for my attempts at remaining curmudgeonly and skeptical, there’s my damnable curiosity and that accursed Google thing out there. I looked for someone to back me up in this. I wanted some esteemed historian to tell me that the yellow ribbon thing is just some icky new phenomena, like forcing people to stand up during that godawful “Proud To Be An American” song, and not an historic tradition dating back to the Civil War.

I got my wish. Kinda…

In an article called How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol at the American Folklife Center, the late Gerald Parsons tried to get to the bottom of the phenomenon. He shot down the notion that its roots are in the Civil War. But, deflating my anti-Tony Orlando rant, he said that it is actually older than the song:

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.

I’ll let you read the rest of the article, but that story got mixed into a lot of songs, including the accursed Dawn’s. When the wife of a convicted Watergate felon decided to reenact the song, word became flesh. From there, somehow, those sympathizing with the Iranian hostages dropped the “ex-con” in “waiting for my sweet ex-con to come home” and the rest is history.

Still, this would not have changed my views on the goofiness of using such a symbol, were it not for Mr. Parson’s elegant summation:

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.

That’s why I have one up there now.

Hurry home, boys and girls.

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7 Responses to Cynical? Me?

  1. theresa says:

    Great minds think alike – I did the exact same thing you did, for almost the same reasons. First of all, I’ve always known yellow ribbons to be for suicide prevention and awareness. Second of all, I wanted to know why yellow. So I did a little research (aka asked google) and I found that very same link. Now I have a yellow ribbon on my site too 🙂

  2. Simply Sara says:

    Go and read my “I remember” post, you will see what I have been through!

    Great post!

  3. David says:

    Hey – don’t you go dissin’ Tony Orlando & Dawn, now…”Knock Three Times” will stand the test of time as a classic!

  4. bran says:

    tie a yeller ribbon round the old oak tree
    it’s been two long years, do you still loooove me?


    on the ceiling if you want me


  5. Mrs. du Toit says:

    Yeah, I know, I’m committing a blog-o-no-no by commenting on an old post, but I just saw your reference to it at Michele’s.

    Wanting to do my bit to help those that have the horrid Yellow Ribbon song in their heads, think of this:

    It’s a Small World After All
    It’s a Small World After All
    It’s a Small World After All
    It’s a small, small world.

    [ducking for cover]

  6. Solonor says:

    Oh yeah? Well, all I have to say is:

    Loving you… is easy ’cause you’re beautiful,
    n making love with you… is all I wanna do.
    Loving you… is more than just a dream come true,
    and everything I doooo… is out of loving you.
    la la la la la, la la la la la, la la la la la la la la la la…
    do do do do oohhhhhhhhhh

  7. Mrs. du Toit says:


    Surrender Dor-o-thy.

    I’m melting.

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