“I just wanted to give people something constructive to do,” Penelope Laingen said about her decision to tie a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in the yard of her Bethesda, Maryland home. It was December of 1979, a month after her husband, Bruce, and 51 others had been taken hostage at the American Embassy in Iran.
“I am waiting and praying and one of these days Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon,” she told reporters. “It’s going to be out there until he does.”
When breast cancer claimed her life at 89 on April 3, 2021, Laingen’s obituaries all led with the yellow ribbon story. In the face of daunting odds, she inadvertently created an international symbol of steadfast hope and love — a symbol which continues to build in popularity.
Laingen’s idea came from the Tony Orlando 1973 multi-platinum seller, Tie a Yellow Ribbon around the Ole Oak Tree. Although not a “particularly big fan,” Laingen found inspiration in the simple sentiment of the lyrics.
But the backstory of that song and how a yellow ribbon took on such significance, is far from simple – it was so convoluted, that a contentious lawsuit resulted.
The association between military deployment and the color “yellow” dates back more than 400 years. Folklore indicates that Puritans may have started the trend by wearing amber belts or insignias in honor of missing loved ones. A version of the song She Wore a Yellow Ribbon became an army marching song — ultimately, it made its way to America, where it became the official theme of the U.S. Cavalry.
In 1917, composer George Norton obtained a copyright for Around Her Neck She Wears a Yellow Ribbon For Her Lover Who is Fur, Fur (sic) Away. The song chronicled the long distance romance of Susie Simpkins and her soldier sweetheart Big Si Hubbard.
The date that cemented the ribbon tradition was October 22, 1949 when the John Ford film classic, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, was released. Starring John Wayne, the film was made for $1.6 million and did a torrid $5.4 million box office. The title song, which substantially retooled George Norton’s lyrics, was prominently featured, as was Joanne Dru, wearing the yellow emblem in her hair. A month later, the Andrews Sisters released the song, scoring a top 40 hit.
Flash forward to October 14, 1971: highly regarded syndicated columnist Pete Hamill published a piece about the coincidental emotional bond six college students develop during a bus ride from New York to Florida with a just-released convict. The ex-convict does not know if his wife will have him back until he sees hundreds of yellow handkerchiefs on an oak tree in his hometown — “a tree that stood like a banner of welcome billowing in the wind,” Hamill wrote.
The story was based on a barroom conversation Hamill had with a lady who claimed to have been an eye witness. It was made clear to readers that the account may have been a fable: “Others have said they have heard a version of it in some forgotten book or been told by an acquaintance,” Hamill noted when Readers Digest reprinted it. “Probably the story is one of those mysterious bits of folklore that emerge from the national subconscious every few years, to be told anew in one form or another. The cast of characters shifts, the message endures. I like to think it did happen somewhere, sometime.”
Songwriters Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown heard one of those variants, polished it with their own interpretation, and attempted to interest Ringo Starr in the material. When that failed, Tony Orlando and Dawn recorded the song in January, 1973. It was a marketplace tsunami; millions of copies sold around the world.
Orlando gave full credit to the composers, Levine and Brown. “I am just the mailman that delivered the letter,” he said. “The song has been a wonderful blessing.”
Hamill was not so ebullient. He sued Levine and Brown for copyright infringement, but the action was dismissed when it was demonstrated that multiple accounts of the story existed prior to the Hamill column.
Tie A Yellow Ribbon and its circuitous origins were snuggly tucked into blast-from-the-past status until Penelope Laingen publicly embraced it during the hostage crisis.
Her activism–she founded the Family Liaison Group to apply pressure on the government to resolve the matter — and media appearances galvanized the ribbon movement. Suddenly, Laingen was tying one to the National Christmas Tree and entire cities were decorated in yellow.
After 444 days of captivity, the hostages were freed. When Bruce Laingen came home and, to the accompaniment of a marching band, removed the original ribbon from the oak tree, it was front page news. That ribbon is now at home in the Library of Congress.
Coda: When the Laingens sold their home a few years ago, they had an understanding with the buyers that the famous tree would not be felled. The couple told The Washington Post they had an “almost mystical attachment” to the oak.