In the spring of 1973, one could not turn on a radio without the voices of Tony Orlando and Dawn emerging from it, singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Ole Oak Tree.” The song was then ubiquitous, as catchy as bronchitis—and just as hard to get rid of. Everyone from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Lawrence Welk covered it, and it could heard emanating from musical decanters, jewelry boxes, and ceramic tchotchkes. If one listened closely, one could hear conch shells playing it.
The song concerns a returning prisoner who, after a three-year term of incarceration, eagerly watches from a bus window to see if his beloved will welcome him home—the sign being a yellow ribbon. Should that bit of fabric be absent, he’d “stay on the bus / Forget about us / Put the blame on me.” Anyone who bothered to listen through to the end of the record know that it ends happily for the ex-convict, with a hundred yellow ribbons on the tree rather than just the one.
The composer of the song, L. Russell Brown, backpedaled on the prison angle, stating that the story was based on a folk tale of a Union solder returning from a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War. And the song (and those yellow ribbons) have been used to welcome home captives from the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis, and to greet service personnel coming home after their overseas deployments. All of which, of course, is laudable.
Yet penal servitude is clearly mentioned in the lyric (“I’m really still in prison / And my love, she holds the key”) and the song is explicitly about forgiveness, redemption, and second chances.
It’s not a Christmas song, as such. But as this is traditionally the season for giving, should it not also be the season for forgiving? Whatever one’s religious affiliation (and I admit to being a Cafeteria Atheist), I am inclined to celebrate a personage who says, “I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. . .Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I am reluctant to take on all the baggage of organized religion, yet that passage moves me. My real religion is music, which I feel says more than words ever can, and which has its own pantheon of saints and redeemers.
In the early years of the last century, a young punk was fooling with a revolver on New Year’s Eve, as is the custom in New Orleans. He fired it into the air, and was arrested. Today, he’d likely be shot on sight by officers of the law. Luckily, he was sentenced to reform school, during which he received education and guidance that gave him the set of skills to change music forever.
I can’t bear to think about that alternate-history scenario. If that young man had been shot dead, and in terms of background and upbringing he was certainly “the least of these my brethren,” we would not have jazz as we know it. We’d never have had the Swing Era. This paper would certainly not exist. Happily (for us all), he was given a second chance through the musical instruction he received from Peter Davis at the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. Louis Armstrong’s redemption was ultimately our own.
There are homecomings, and then there are homecomings. I cannot begrudge anyone their ticker-tape parade from a heroic tour of duty. When one who has fallen from grace returns from an enforced period of captivity and reflection, there are no crowds. There may be furtive glances from behind Venetian blinds, and the sound of deadbolts being thrown home.
Empathy is hard. We readily deny certain people their humanity even as they have been denied freedom of movement and suffrage. Nonetheless, I have witnessed at close hand good people I know deprived of their freedom for a moment of foolishness, carelessness, or expediency. And, having returned from a period of imprisonment, they are forever suspect.
We all too eagerly circle the wagons against the supposed least of us. And while there is much talk of giving and compassion during this season, most of us are only as compassionate as our personal tastes will allow. It would be refreshing to see less suspicion and more magnanimity; fewer pitchforks and more yellow ribbons.
May this season be one of welcome and forgiveness, and may the coming year be one of new and favorable beginnings