In 1973, Irwin Levine and L Russell Brown’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” was released by a band referred to as “Dawn featuring Tony Orlando” — for contractual reasons that have never been very clear to me. It eventually became Tony Orlando and Dawn, with “Dawn” apparently being Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, even though that was not originally what the band name had meant.
At this point, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is kind of a joke song — something for Las Vegas crooners to emit from the silk and amphetamine. As usual with this kind of song, the very things that made people first love it — it stayed at Number 1 for a whole month — is what people now hate about it. Story songs tend not to hold up well over time anyway. And this one is overwrought, regardless. “Bus driver, please look for me; ’cause I couldn’t bear to see what I might see…” And then the final payoff, “A hundred yellow ribbons ’round the ole oak tree!” It doesn’t help that Tony Orlando looks like a guy every woman in America regrets having had a one night stand with.
But I think it is a brave tune. It is about a man coming home from prison after doing hard time — three years inside, which means he was probably given ten years. That’s bank robbery time. Or possession of a joint in 1970. But it shows a laudable act of love on the on the part of the girlfriend. A hundred yellow ribbons seems a bit excessive, but then a simple letter would have destroyed the whole conceit of the song. In “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy Wynette implies that a woman should look past all manner of abuse thrown her way “that you don’t understand.” But in this song, the woman is standing by her man in a mature way. You don’t allow a man to walk all over you, but you also don’t expect him to be perfect. So you get down to the important business of decorating that ole oak tree.
The down side of this is that Tony Orlando has been a big booster for “yellow ribbon” campaigns for soldiers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does indicate that he wants to distance himself from the actual content of the song. He also hangs out with Christian conservatives on show like Huckabee and The 700 Club.