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Alternate Meaning of Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree

Updated on October 7, 2019

Song written by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown

The popular interpretation of the song is that it is a convict returning home after doing his 3 years in prison. This is a literal interpretation that most people recognize, but I am here to present an alternative interpretation, that the convict is actually a returning service member, having returned from a 3 year tour of duty, possibly from Vietnam.

My wife and I were listening to the song, and there certainly is some imagery linking it to prison, but I think there is a deeper meaning.

Picture: Rich 701

First, addressing the lyrics

"I've done my time" is frequently used by non-inmates to indicate they have put in enough effort and time to be completed. This could mean that he has been discharged from the military.

"If you received my letter telling you I'd soon be free"

"If" being the important part here. Prisons are part of the normal mail system after leaving the prison mail system, whereas if you are in an active military hot zone, letters can frequently be lost in transit for various reasons. Sometimes the vehicle carrying it is lost or destroyed. Prisoners typically have visitation rights. His significant other could have visited him or written him a letter.

If, however, the speaker was in a war zone, letters may have been lost, and visitation would not be an option. Again, if she were willing to wait 3 years to see him, she surely would have attempted to visit him, or at least written a letter.

"Bus driver, please look for me"

If the speaker is a convict, there is little chance that he has become friends with the bus driver.

"Now the whole damned bus is cheerin'"

Again, convicts generally have a stigma, and are generally avoided by others.

"A hundred yellow ribbons 'round the ole oak tree"

Not only was the speaker forgiven, but an outpouring of emotion by his significant other. Not unheard of, but frequently inmates are estranged by family and loved once. Family ties are the first thing that is lost when separated from loved ones.

A timely song

The song was released in 1973 by Dawn, featuring Tony Orlando, near the withdrawing of the US from the Vietnam War.

While L. Russell Brown would later state the song was about a soldier returning from the civil war, the release near the ending of another war can hardly be a coincidence.

A convict returning from jail is generally not as happy a moment as a service man returning intact. Not to disparage convicts, as I am sure many families are happy to have them back, but they have generally committed crimes.

Dawn featuring Tony Orlando

A great song, no matter what the meaning. This song spent a few weeks at #1 on the billboard hot 100, in 1973.


Contemporary to the song was an article written by Pete Hamill title "Going Home." In it, a convict talks to some college students about looking for a yellow handkerchief on the way home.

In 1972, a movie was made in which James Earl Jones plays said convict.

The songwriters could have gotten the idea from the article or the movie, and written the song.


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