Everyone my age and up remembers yellow ribbons. We learned the song "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree" back in the early 1970s and we lived through the first big adoption of them as a symbol during the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979-1981, when we saw actual ribbons tied on trees everywhere while we were counting the days and weeks and months of the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran and watching it play out as a political issue in the Carter-Reagan presidential race in 1980 (an issue that is much on the minds of people with long memories right now in light of last week's helicopter raid into hostile territory that succeeded where Carter's famously failed...)
There was also a 1971 article in the New York Post by Pete Hamill telling the returning-convict story, which the Post has kindly republished here. I never knew about that article before today, but the song was one of my childhood favorites even before the hostage crisis. I love songs that tell a story, and this one is so simple yet so moving that it still makes me tear up.
Nowadays, the yellow ribbons have been reduced to those little magnetic stick-on things attached to cars, lost among a rainbow of other symbolic ribbons and now associated with supporting military men and women deployed overseas. It had never before occurred to me to wonder about the yellow ribbon's history; I just assumed it started with the song. That turns out to be wrong. Very wrong. And now I can document just how wrong it is.
But before I get to my own little contribution to the historiography of the yellow ribbon, some background:
All around my hat, I will wear a green willow
All around my hat, for a twelvemonth and a day
And if anyone should ask me the reason that I'm wearing it
It's all for my true love, who's far, far away.
That's Steeleye Span's version, which is the one I know the best, but the song and the wearing-the-willow tradition are far older; a version was published in 1578, and Shakespeare's doomed Desdemona references it in Othello, Act IV, scene 3:
My mother had a maid call'd Barbara:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of 'willow;'
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side,
And sing it like poor Barbara. Prithee, dispatch.
Sometime in the early 20th century, possibly for reasons of scansion, the green willows got replaced by yellow ribbons (and occasionally other items) in a popular song and a film starring John Wayne. The Parsons article has a lot of more detail on the twentieth century history.
But what's interesting to me is that Parsons, a careful historian, discounts due to lack of evidence the notion of the yellow ribbon being a traditional symbol before the 20th century and considers its association with the American Civil War to be a relic of its use in Hollywood movies. About.Com's urban legend expert recaps and credits Parsons. The Wikipedia article on the yellow ribbon mentions that the song is centuries old and suggests that it traces back to the English Civil War and the yellow sashes worn by the Puritans, but it neglects to mention that the the centuries-old version involves green willows, not yellow ribbons. Or, if the authors really do mean there is a centuries-old song that involves yellow ribbons, they neglect to provide any cite for such a song. Like Parsons, I believe that one needs cites to back up such assertions.
A followup article by Parsons from 1991 reiterated this point, though it again muddies the waters by suggesting that some version of "Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," is four centuries old. But he gives no specific cites, and a discussion thread at the Mudcat Cafe fails to turn up any source earlier than 1917. Parsons's "version" may have been referring to "All Around My Hat."
The color yellow, at least, might come from another folksong, "Flash Company," which includes the line "Take this yellow handkerchief in remembrance of me," though that isn't really the focus of the song. The earliest definite cite I can find for it in a fairly cursory search is 1906, though once again there are unsourced assertions that it is older:
"The song was first noted in Limerick in the 1850's and was still well known recently, not only in East Anglia, but also among Travellers throughout southern England.”
-- Cyril Poacher
That assertion is probably documentable by searching ballad collections. But the song does not really have the same theme as the "far, far away" lover of "All Around My Hat;" it's actually about a flash girl who's leaving her young man consoling him by pointing out that he'll meet other girls. So all it really adds is the color yellow for remembrance.
So what about yellow ribbons? That's where it gets exciting, at least to historians.
I can't provide a song cite, but this afternoon, while pursuing a completely unrelated project, I turned up a reference to yellow ribbons being worn by an actual person in reference to an absent loved one, in this case a husband. It dates to the late 18th century and is the very best kind of source: a personal letter.
The letter was written by Joseph Sydney Yorke, a young British midshipman on H.M.S Salisbury who served in the American Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars, eventually rising to admiral. That's him at left (click to enlarge), sometime after he was promoted to captain in 1793.
Here's what the twenty-year-old Joseph wrote from the Salisbury, docked at Spithead, in a letter to his mother dated May 8th. No year is given, but it's in the midst of a bunch of other letters dated 1788 and that year fits with his service on the Salisbury and other historical data:
"I dined with Ly D__ on Monday, Sir Charles is gone to Holland. She is very fine & wears lashes of yellow Ribbon round her delicate shape, & ditto in her Hat; I asked why yellow Ribbons? __ She answered , because Sir __ was gone away! __ what yellow Ribband, and the good mans departure have to do with one another I know not."
(Source: Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, Letters from Newfoundland. James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, p.165.)
"Lady D__" is Lady Douglas, wife of Vice Admiral Sir Charles Douglas, who was Yorke's patron in the British Navy and tried -- unsuccessfully, at the time -- to get him promoted to Lieutenant. Yorke often dined with the Douglases when the Salisbury was in port, and they are regularly mentioned in his letters home. His mother Agneta also corresponded with Sir Charles while pushing for her son's promotion. Sir Charles had served with the Dutch as a young man and apparently liked it enough to go off to Holland for visits later in life. He would die the next March, only a few months before Yorke finally received his promotion.
So there you have it. A future admiral's youthful puzzlement at a lady's fashion statement in 1788 helps document the tradition of the yellow ribbon 223 years later, pushing its documentable origins back more than a century.
This kind of serendipity is why I love library research.