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Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree

All cultures have traditions and stories that pass down from generation to generation and America is no different. American school children learn about the midnight ride of Paul Revere and Betsy Ross sewing the flag. Although parts of the stories may be true, in many cases they change over time. One American symbol that comes back time and time again is the yellow ribbon.

Penne and Bruce Laingen (photo Library of Congress).

One institution that tries to help us find the truth behind the symbol is the American Folklife Center which is part of the Library of Congress. Be sure to visit the center's website to explore various elements of the American folk symbol. In 1991 at the height of the Iraq hostage crisis, the Folklife Center was inundated with requests for information about the yellow ribbon as a symbol. In April of 1981 Gerald E Parsons had published an article in the Folk Center News "Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition" (volume IV, no. 2, April 1981) for the Folklife Center News. Parsons asked the question, "Is the custom of displaying yellow ribbons for an absent loved-one a genuine American tradition?" He goes on to say, "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."

Parsons goes on to say that ribbons have long been associated with remembering persons that were away from home and a similar rendition to the song popular in the civil war may have been sung hundreds of years before in Europe. The most current references that Parsons could find in relation to American culture actually had to do with a man returning to his family from prison and he had told his wife to hang white ribbons from the tree if he was welcome to get off the train. Read Parsons article to learn about the tradition.

In more recent times, the popularity of tying ribbons around trees can be attributed to Gail Magruder and Penne Laingen. According to the History Channel, the popularity of the yellow ribbon can be tied to the song sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," which topped the U.S. pop charts on this day in 1973.

The History Channel goes on to relate, "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. 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 an article titled 'Penne Laingen's Wait.' The Post said, '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.' Since then the yellow ribbon symbol had become a banner through which families could express their determination to be reunited."

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