It seems as if every good cause has a ribbon these days, including pink for breast cancer and red for AIDS—and it's all because of a 44-year-old sentimental pop song about a convicted felon.
"Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" wrapped itself around the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for nearly a month starting this week in 1973, and has remained entwined in the national consciousness ever since.
Made famous by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando, as the group was then billed, the song recounted the bus ride of a nervous parolee hoping to see a telltale sign that the love of his life wanted him back. His fellow passengers cheered when they spotted not one, but 100, yellow ribbons wrapped around the title tree.
The story behind the symbol's origins is sketchy—and litigious. Women in the 19th century supposedly wore yellow ribbons in their hair as a sign of support for husbands and beaus in the U.S. Calvary. The practice inspired a 1917 marching song "Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Far, Far Away)" and a 1949 John Wayne western, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."
But the song more closely hews to a 1971 newspaper story by Pete Hamill of the New York Post. The article told of college students on a spring break bus ride to Florida who befriended an ex-con on his way home to Brunswick, Georgia, where he saw a yellow handkerchief tied to an oak.
Songwriters Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown saw the story, wrote the song and offered it to Ringo Starr before Orlando recorded it as a followup to Dawn's 1970 hits "Candida" and "Knock Three Times."
Hamill later sued the songwriters for copyright infringement, but eventually dropped the suit when so many similar tales surfaced of yellow-ribbon homecomings that the tale was soon relegated to urban legend status.
The ribbon craze, however, was just beginning.