This song was written by Irwin Levine and Larry Brown (credited as L. Russell Brown), who wrote the previous #1 hit for the group, "Knock Three Times
." The song is based on a story called "Going Home" that Levine read in the January 1972 edition of the magazine Reader's Digest
. The story was originally published
in the New York Post
on October 14, 1971, appearing in a column called "The Eight Million" written by Pete Hamill.
In the story, six kids riding a bus from New York to Fort Lauderdale strike up a conversation with a man named Vingo, who tells them he was just released from prison after four years in jail. He told his wife, Martha, that she could start a new life without him, and for the last three-and-a-half years of his incarceration, he didn't hear from her. In his last letter to her, he gave her instructions. The story reads:We used to live in this town, Brunswick, just before Jacksonville, and there's a big oak tree just as you come into town, a very famous tree, huge. I told her that if she'd take me back, she should put a yellow handkerchief on the tree and I'd get off and come home. If she didn't want me, forget it - no handkerchief and I'd go through.
Everyone on the bus kept a lookout for the tree, and when they arrived, there were lots of handkerchiefs tied to it, giving the story a very happy ending.
It's a folk story: different versions of it had been floating around for decades, often with White Oak, Georgia as the setting. Pete Hamill heard the story at a Greenwich Village bar called the Lion's Head, where writers would congregate.
Levine and Brown thought it would make a great song, so they used the story as the basis for the lyric, changing the handkerchief to a yellow ribbon, since "Tie A Yellow Handkerchief Round The Ole Oak Tree" would be awkward.