Thursday, April 22, 2004

Yellow ribbons pull at our hearts

A soldier from Batavia held hostage in Iraq intensifies custom that probably started with a book released in 1959

By Lauren Bishop
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This past weekend, Tricia Charles, her two daughters and a friend made 3,000 yellow ribbon pins for people who want to show their support for Army Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin, the Batavia resident who is being held hostage in Iraq.

Craft stores in the area are reporting brisk sales of yellow ribbon. One sold out after a Monday news conference at which Maupin family spokesman Carl Cottrell encouraged people to display the ribbons. Even some local newscasters are wearing yellow ribbons on the air.

"It just shows that we're a loving community, and that we're supportive of Matt and his family and the other soldiers," says Charles, who lives in Batavia. "It's the least we can do for them for what they're giving us today."

The ribbons' reappearance raises questions about how the custom got started. While many attribute it to the 1973 hit Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree, the story predates the song, according to Gerald E. Parsons, a late folklorist and librarian in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

Parsons wrote that it started with a legend, recounted in a 1959 book, in which a man returning from five years' imprisonment had asked his illiterate family to decorate an apple tree with white ribbons if they wanted him back.

Ribbons have been used to promote things from autism awareness to Zero Tolerance for Child Porn on the 'Net.
Here are a few lesser-known ribbons compiled on a Web site called Ribbon Campaigns (, which claims to be "The most comprehensive ribbon list on the 'Net."
• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) awareness: navy pinstripe inspired by Lou Gehrig's uniform
• Autism awareness: different-colored puzzle pattern representing the mystery and complexity of autism
• Cancer awareness: teal for ovarian cancer, orange for leukemia, lime for lymphoma, pearl for lung cancer, gold for childhood cancer, brown for colon cancer, gray for brain cancer, lavender for general cancer
• Chemical injury awareness: purple and yellow
• Hospice and palliative care awareness: purple and green
• Lupus awareness: purple
• Spina bifida awareness: yellow ribbon with red heart in middle
• Zero Tolerance for Child Porn on the 'Net: white

Ribbons have a lighter side, as well:
• Campaign against ribbon campaigns: multi-colored
• International No Diet Day (May 6): light blue
• Stop Hating Leonardo DiCaprio: blue

The story was passed down in religious circles. Then, in October 1971, Pete Hamill wrote a piece for the New York Post in which an ex-convict was watching for a yellow handkerchief on a roadside oak tree, Parsons said.

In 1972, Reader's Digest reprinted the story, and ABC aired a dramatized version of it starring James Earl Jones as the ex-con, according to Parsons.

Also that year, songwriters Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown registered a copyright for the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree, later performed by Tony Orlando and Dawn, which became a No. 1 hit on the pop charts in April 1973.

After the song came out, two other events helped propel yellow ribbons to popularity, Parsons wrote. On a televised newscast in January 1975, Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder, who was convicted in the Watergate scandal, decorated her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome her husband home from prison.

In December 1979, the Washington Post carried an article about Penelope Laingen. Iranian revolutionaries had taken hostage her husband, U.S. Ambassador Bruce Laingen and more than 60 other Americans hostage in Tehran in November of that year.

Laingen had tied a yellow ribbon around an oak tree as she awaited her husband's return, according to the Post. Other Americans followed suit, untying the ribbons at the end of the hostage crisis in 1981.

The yellow ribbons reappeared during the first Gulf War in 1991.

At about the same timea group of New York artists connected with the not-for-profit group Visual AIDS designed the red AIDS ribbon, says Visual AIDS executive director Amy Sadao.

The group was looking for a symbol to show compassion and solidarity for people living with AIDS and their caregivers, Sadao says.

They also wanted something that could be made easily, and intentionally never copyrighted it.

They eventually came up with the six-inch strip of looped ribbon, which could be attached to lapels with a safety pin. Red symbolizes passion, blood and love, Sadao says.

The ribbon began appearing on the lapels or dress straps of countless celebrities after actor Jeremy Irons wore it during the nationally televised Tony Awards in 1991.

As the trend grew, some cultural critics said the ribbon had become to "kitsch-ified" to be effective, Sadao says.

"We're constantly looking for ways to keep the spotlight on the AIDS pandemic, both nationally and globally," she says. "We're not engaged in looking for a specific symbol."

Similarly, the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon, while still an enduring symbol for numerous breast cancer-related organizations and events, is not worn as widely as it once was, says Anna DeLuca, director of public relations for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Evelyn H. Lauder, the founder and chairwoman of the organization, and former Self magazine editor Alexandra Penney designed the ribbon in 1999 after seeing how the red AIDS ribbon was helping to raise awareness of that disease, DeLuca says.

DeLuca isn't dismayed that fewer people are wearing the ribbon now. It's done its job, she says.

"Maybe someday it will be more of a reminder than a fight for a cause," she says.

After the 9-11 attacks, red, white and blue ribbons appeared along with other patriotic displays.

After March's train bombings in Madrid, Spaniards responded in a markedly different way - by wearing black ribbons to symbolize their grief. Germany and France followed suit in a show of solidarity, according to news reports.

Dr. Judith Trent, a professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati, theorizes that Spaniards responded differently to that terrorist attack because, "they didn't ever want to be involved in any of this. They have more traditional signs of mourning."

Whatever the color, the ribbons allow the wearers, without saying a word, to show support for a person or a cause or to show that they have been affected by something, Trent says.

Trent thinks the war in Iraq, as much as any recent conflict, is now hitting close to home, prompting some people, including one of her neighbors, to personalize their yellow-ribbon displays with signs and photos.

"That's why it's important," Trent says. "And besides, what else can we do?"


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