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There are two prominent theories regarding the title of this song:
1) The name "Yellow Ledbetter" derives from an old tongue twister in which you try to say "yellow better, red better" as fast as you can. Just a few times repeated, the words become jumbled and you get "yellow ledbetter." The reason they named the song this is because the lyrics are indistinguishable just like the tongue twister.
2) It's a tribute to Huddy Ledbetter (known as Leadbelly), who was one of the founding fathers of Blues in the 1930s, and recorded much of his music while in jail for assault. Leadbelly first recorded many classic tunes which have been covered by many bands, like "Land of the Rising Sun" and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night."
The real meaning, however, as stated in Five Against One: The Pearl Jam Story by Kim Neely, is that the title was a joke in honor of a Chicago friend of Eddie Vedder's named Tim Ledbetter. (thanks, Martin - Rostock, Germany)
Eddie Vedder admits that he changes the lyrics and meaning of the song when he performs it, but he wrote the song with one story in mind, which he told at a concert in Newark, New Jersey on August 7, 2008. He asked if anyone had any questions, and a fellow asked what the lyrics to "Yellow Ledbetter" were. Instead of going word for word, Eddie simply told the story of the song.
The song was written during the first gulf war, when "Papa Bush" was President, as Eddie calls him. The story is about a young Grunger kid, all dressed up in his flannels with the long greasy hair. His brother goes off to fight in the war and gets killed. He gets a letter that comes in one of those yellow army envelopes and learns of his brother's death. So, all upset, he decides to go out and walk it off. On his walk he passes by a neat, middle-aged or elderly couple sitting on their front porch having some tea, and he sees that they have an American flag out. He gives a wave, because he feels like he relates: "The flag, my brother, you know..." But they don't know, of course. They don't know what's underneath the grunge and the long hair. All they see are the outward appearances, and they don't wave back.
The song has changed its meaning over time and Eddie changes the words to suit whatever is on his mind. (thanks, Graham - Morrisville, PA)
The guitar part is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, as it is much the same intro riff as his "Little Wing
." (thanks, C - DC, DC, for above 3)
Pearl Jam often uses this to close their concerts. The houselights come on and the audience sings along.
This does not appear on any of Pearl Jam's studio albums; it was released as the B-side of the "Jeremy
A live version is the B-side of Pearl Jam's "Daughter
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