In the New York Post dated October 14th 1971, a short story was published called “Going Home.” It was written by Pete Hamill, an American journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator. Three months later it was published in Reader’s Digest and it was here that Irwin Levine read it and found inspiration for the song he co-wrote with Larry Brown
In the story, six youngsters are travelling on a bus from New York to Fort Lauderdale. One of them strikes up a conversation with a man named Vingo, who tells them he was just released from prison after serving a four-year sentence. The man had told his wife, Martha that she should start a new life without him and during the three-and-a-half years of his incarceration, he never heard from her. In his last letter to Martha, Vingo reminded her of a big famous tree just outside of the town where they lived. He said that if she would take him back she should put a yellow handkerchief on the tree as a sign that he should get off the bus and come home. If there was no sign on the tree, he would stay on the bus, knowing that she didn’t want him.
The kids on the bus were excited to know whether Vingo’s wife was prepared to take him back and when they arrived at the tree, there were many yellow handkerchiefs tied to it.
All the bus passengers cheered, giving the story a happy ending.
Brown and Levine thought the story would make a great song but discovered that replacing the word handkerchief with ribbon made the lyrics less awkward.
At the time this song was released, many soldiers were returning home from the Vietnam War and people began to tie yellow ribbons to trees to welcome their husbands, sons, boyfriends and brothers home from the war.
Yellow ribbons appeared again in 1980 when Americans put them on trees to remember the hostages being held in Iran.
The song was nominated for two Grammy awards: Song of the Year and Best Pop Group Performance.
The song was a #1 hit in 10 charts around the world, including the UK for four weeks in April 1973.
In 1977, a Japanese movie called The Yellow Handkerchief was released, based on the same story. The film was remade in English in 2008, with William Hurt playing the convict returning home.