In Search of “Yellow Ledbetter”

by Jessica Letkemann on March 12, 2005

 Yellow Letter

Every Pearl Jam fan knows that most of the studio version of “Yellow Ledbetter” doesn’t quite have real lyrics, just mumblings that Eddie made up on the spot back in the early ’90s when it was recorded. The song is the earliest Pearl Jam song based on a Mike McCready riff, and nods beautifully to Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” First appearing as a b-side on a couple of Ten- and Vs.-era singles, the song became a fan favorite for its vibe despite the fact that no one really knew what Ed was singing about. After being taken off guard in 1993 by the number of end-of-show requests they were getting for the song, “Yellow Ledbetter” evolved into a regular show finale: Ed calling for full house lights, revealing the band and its fans singing their sweaty hearts out. “Hunna wee dem unna wish it all away yeah anna call anna said unna call wanna saay ana call at again! Yeah!”

Does “Yellow Ledbetter” have any meaning? Real lyrics? Over a decade of fan curiosity concluded, “no,” but hold on, there’s some evidence to the contrary to reveal…

The first hopeful clue was the Japanese 3″ CD single for “Daughter”, but the “lyrics” it contained — printed in both Japanese and English — were highly suspect. It’s common for the non-U.S. arms of record companies to include lyrics and their translations in the packaging – usually without the aid of the official lyrics. The results, as with the Japanese “Ledbetter” release, are just plain wrong. To put it bluntly, the Japanese “Ledbetter” lyrics made no sense, and left fans no closer to eternal quest for the “real” lyrics.

One big clue, it turns out, is rooted in both one of the earliest examples of the song and several of the latest versions. Going back to the song’s origins, it appears on a cassette case (see right) handwritten by Ed from the March 1991 Ten sessions (which took place during the first Gulf War). During an online chat in 2000, Eddie commented that “Yellow Ledbetter,”was written right around the time of the Gulf War. That’s about as far as I can get into it. It’s an anti-patriotic song, actually.” On that March 1991 tape case, Ed titled the song “Yellow Letter.” Research reveals that historically, a “yellow letter” is common vintage slang for a telegram, which was always on yellow paper once upon a time. Most specifically the slang refers to the “bad news” telegram which was hand-delivered by fellow servicemen indicating that the family of military personnel would receive when their husband or son died in combat.

In that context, the few decipherable original lyrics make a lot more sense. “I see them out on the porch,” he sings, “but they don’t wave.” Imagine stony-faced men in uniform bearing a yellow letter about to ring a doorbell bringing somber news. Fans have long debated over the meaning of “I don’t know if it was the box or the bag.” Eddie often returned to that line live in later years, and it seemed to eerily namecheck coffins and body bags. More recently, during the current Iraq war, the 2003 tour versions of the song that Eddie sang, “the box or the bag” definitely meant coffins and body bags, and those versions of the song were clearly about family learning of the death of their relative in the military. A prime example is the clearly decipherable version from Camden, NJ in 2003:

…on the front side, letter said
Something that I don’t wanna think of in my head…
And I try not to dream of him every night, but I still hear him
And that’s all that I can think of.
The letter that was in my hand that said my brother’s coming home in a box or a bag.

 

Yeah, when I see them I’d like to wish it all away yeah
And I tried and a phoned and I coulda left a message
Can’t get through to Afghanistan
Want to see him
I knew him like a friend
My brother’s coming home in a box or a bag

While that lyric has been much illuminated over the years, we can still only offer educated speculation about why “Yellow Letter” was renamed “Yellow Ledbetter.” Though some allege that the title was chosen in honor of a friend of Ed’s from Chicago whose last name was Ledbetter, we can’t ignore the fact that one of Mike McCready’s major influences is blues great Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. “Yellow Ledbetter” undeniably recalls Leadbelly’s brand of blues, and Mike’s simple, clean guitar woven throughout the song recalls Leadbelly’s spare playing style. We should also point out here that Leadbelly was also one of Hendrix’s influences.

One day Eddie and Mike might clue everyone in on the complete meaning of the song and it’s title, but until then, fans everywhere will still cheer wildly when they hear Mike’s killer opening notes and watch Eddie as he begins to mumble, with conviction, new words every time.

* * * *

For your enjoyment, please see the extremely erroneous lyrics for “Yellow Ledbetter” below as printed in the Japanese “Daughter” 3″ CD Single:

I want to see them on the porch of Ledbetter
I said I want to say I want to leave her again
On the frontside, on the porch of Ledbetter
I said, I dont,
I don’t want to say it and it come out again
On the far side, I’m wishing on a well
I only fall when I say it and I go and I say it
I’m going to leave her again
On the frontside, on the porch of Ledbetter
I said, I dont
I don’t know whether it was a box or a bag

Can you see them out on the porch
But they don’t wave
I see them on the front way
And I know and I know I don’t want to stay

I want to see them on the porch of Ledbetter
And I said, I want a brother
I want to write you again
On the yellow, on the porch of Ledbetter
I said, I don’t
I don’t know whether it was a box or a bag

 

 

 

Can you see them out on the porch
But they don’t wave
I see them on the front way
And I know and I know I don’t want to stay

Jessica Letkemann ( Twitter: @Letkemann )
TFT co-editor Jessica Letkemann is a New York based digital music journalist & editor. She's currently VP & Editor-In-Chief of Digital at Fuse Media (Fuse.tv) and was previously managing editor of Billboard.com. She has also been on staff at Spin and Premiere magazines. Her first Pearl Jam show was at Lollapalooza on August 2, 1992.

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