The yellow ribbons honoring America’s troops in the Persian Gulf are everywhere: blowing from fences, hanging on car antennas, enrobing trees. Their inspiration, of course, is Tony Orlando & Dawn’s ”Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” and it was this week in 1973 that the song started moving up the charts to become the year’s biggest hit. Over time, ”Yellow Ribbon” has turned into one of the most-performed tunes in history, according to the licensing firm BMI.
The ballad about an anxious prisoner being welcomed home by his girlfriend’s yellow ribbons initially struck a chord with Vietnam vets who themselves had just returned. The song made a stunning comeback in 1981 to greet 52 American hostages who had been incarcerated for 15 months in Iran; two of the female hostages wore yellow ribbons on their trip home. And now the song may become a Top 40 hit again. ”When the troops first started going over, we’d get 10 requests for it in a day,” says Mark Proctor, a deejay at KTLC-FM in Abilene, Tex., where thousands of yellow ribbons honor overseas soldiers from nearby Dyess Air Force Base. ”We’re still playing it.”
But the origins of the song go back far beyond 1973 to the Civil War, when yellow ribbons became tokens of remembrance. The 1949 John Wayne Western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon drew on the tradition, and in 1971, journalist Pete Hamill wrote a fictional column in the New York Post about a prisoner returning home by bus to a sweetheart who adorns a tree with yellow handkerchiefs. In ’72, Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, who also penned the Tony Orlando hit ”Knock Three Times,” wrote the song. Hamill sued the two, unsuccessfully, and Brown’s manager says the songwriters simply ”had POWs and people separated from loved ones in mind.” Hamill was, however, paid in full when Japanese director Yoji Yamada transformed his story into the 1978 film The Yellow Handkerchief.
Orlando, who has said he thought ”Yellow Ribbon” was ”corny” when he recorded it, still sings it in nightclubs with Joyce Vincent Wilson, half of the original Dawn. Telma Hopkins, the other half, costars as Rachel on the ABC sitcom Family Matters.
TIME CAPSULE: March 1-7, 1973
Dan Jenkins’ pro football satire, Semi-Tough, and Alex Comfort’s manual The Joy of Sex are best sellers. A New York judge rules the film Deep Throat obscene, All in the Family is tops on TV, and Roberta Flack’s ”Killing Me Softly With His Song” is No. 1 on the pop singles chart.