Tony Orlando—the force behind a House tradition?
The inspiration for the tradition was not his harmonious backup singers or his luxuriant mustache, but his 1973 hit recording, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” From those pop music origins grew the tradition of wearing a colored ribbon to mark major events, a practice that was taken up by the House during joint sessions and meetings of Congress.
“Tie a Yellow Ribbon” was about a homeward-bound ex-convict, who asked his sweetheart to signal her forgiveness before he even knocks on her door. In 1979, the yellow ribbon became a sign not for the return of a prodigal son but rather for the release of U.S. citizens being held captive. On November 4 of that year, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held the emabassy staff hostage. Led by Penelope Laingen, the wife of chargé d’affaires Bruce Laingen, who was one of the prisoners, several organizations made the yellow ribbon a symbol of hope for the hostages’ safe return, and yellow bows appeared around tree trunks in yards across the nation.
The ribbon-bedecked tree was revived in 1991 during the first Gulf War as a wish for soldiers’ homecomings, and the sense of a ribbon as a wistful, elegiac, but ultimately hopeful gesture was established. It echoed the mourning ribbons Americans had worn beginning in the 19th century. The elegantly looped red AIDS awareness ribbon created by the arts group Visual AIDS in 1991 was one of the first widespread examples of these memorial ribbons being worn on clothing the 20th century. Other ribbons in the same iconic shape followed quickly. Most were commemorations of tragic events or aligments with worthy causes, from breast cancer to drunk driving prevention. The ribbon’s inverted-V shape became the basis for commemorative objects in countless other materials, from silver to rubber.
Lawmakers took to the practice, as well. In 1998, Members of Congress wore blue and black ribbons to mourn the deaths of Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, U.S. Capitol Police officers killed in the line of duty. A few years later, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, staffers in the House’s Office of the Clerk began to make similar ribbons of red, white, and blue. It was a true grassroots effort. One staffer said that they set about making them in an almost therapeutic fashion the day after the attack, to “give ourselves a sense of purpose.” The following year, the ribbons re-appeared when the House and Senate met jointly in New York to mark the first anniversary of the event. In subsequent years, Members wore ribbons en masse on the House Floor following such major events as the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, and individual Representatives often sported versions that brought awareness to particular causes.
Sources: Gerald E. Parsons, “How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol,” Folklife Center News, Volume XIII, no. 3 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1991); Tad Tuleja, ed., Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1997); Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994).