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Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam

Album: Jeremy singleReleased: 1992Charted:
  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Graham - Morrisville, PA
  • The guitar part is a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, as it is much the same intro riff as his "Little Wing." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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" single.
  • A live version is the B-side of Pearl Jam's "Daughter" single.
  • A brief snippet of the song was played in the series finale of the television series Friends when Jennifer Aniston's character Rachel was about to board a plane to Paris. It marked the first time that Pearl Jam had licensed one of their tunes for a TV show.
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Comments: 69

Clearly homage to Little Wing. As for the lyrics, there is a theory that Vedder ran away from a fight in grammar school. His friends called him "yellow" and his buddie's last name was Ledbetter. Vedder claimed his name was Yellow Ledbetter when renting movies at Blockbuster video. A different theory is that Vedder was inspired by Charles Martel's performance at the Battle of Tours. Martel fought back invading Muslims (nothing new) even though his army did not have firearms ("hot lead") because they were not yet invented. Martel had huge balls beating the Muslims and his soldiers say he had "Ledebetter Ballues" which means "Big Balls."Bobbylupo - Chicago
The best impression of Jimi Hendrix, good stuff.Ray Yugoslava - Perm, Russia
Also I should add that there aren't really any lyrics. For instance, if you see lyrics to the original version, it's all bulls--t because Vedder doesn't even know what he sang. He was drunk at the time, as was the rest of the band, and he made the lyrics up on the spot.Tl - Mo
Jesus Christ y'all. It's a combination of a friend's last name interchanged with the word letter. It was a yellow letter, and it was changed to Yellow Ledbetter. Vedder and the other members frequently played word games substituting similar words into common phrases, so this wasn't unusual at all.

But yes, it's about the war. Guy's brother dies, gets a yellow letter, out on a walk thinking about it, stares at a flag on a porch and gestures toward it, kind of waves toward the couple on the porch, but they're bible thumping dumb f--ks who just scowl at him because of his clothes.
Tl - Mo
I don't really know why I like this song because I usually do not care for songs if they are sung in such a way that the lyrics are hard to make out. Not only that, but if you read the lyrics they do not make much sense either. I guess it just all comes down to the music. It is very mournful and Eddie Vedder sings it with such angst that you cannot help but love it!Laura - El Paso, Tx
Pearl Jam - best everJryan - Quezon City, Philippines
I like this Pearl Jam song. My favorite is Even Flow.Claire - Miller's, Md
Heard a couple of guys down on Beale Street do an acoustic cover of this song. Should have recorded it.Gus - Fort Smith, Ar
beautiful song... thanksJoey - Westville, Ny
I've always thought of this song as a college student who loses his "high school sweetheart" by way of a letter. [unsealed, on the porch the letter sits, I left it sit, I'm gonna leave it again.] then he sees them together and the reality of it all sinks in and he feels defeated [boxer or the bag] then it seems the everywhere he goes he sees them. [On the porch, 'round the front way] now he feels he has nothing to live for [I don't wanna stay at all]
Obviously this song has many meanings. What I love about it is you can tell that Eddie definitely feels whatever it means to him.
Jon - Southgate, Ky
regardless of who you are or your past experiences this is an awesome asong. the meaning, as Vedder has stated, changes to suit his mood or world events. everyone can relate to some part of this song, and that's what makes great art.Berto - Northport, Fl
The guitar tabs on this song are awesome. Great for an guitar player!Krista - Carbondale, Pa
A very beautiful song-especially the opening guitar! Awesome!Nicole - Chicago, Il
Maybe the song is about Obama's pursuit to help lily, the woman who fought against pay discrimination. Maybe it's a warsong. Maybe it's about change. Maybe a tribute to jimi hendrix. Maybe it's about love and death. maybe it's Pearl jam's encore. I DONT CARE. Yellow ledbetter moves me. I listen to yellow ledbetter everytime i feel like six pack world kinda fallin' apart----like Hiroshima---- Nagaski and my pursuit to die is comin' back to my senses.Known this song since i was in college. I now Im a bank officer. Still the inspiration that song gives me, is makes a significance.Ive been through a rough ride in my life. and there are times that all ive got is this song in mind. it made made me survive physical and emotional pain. thank you pearl jam.Bam Masongsong - Makati, Philippines
brilliant song!!!! definitely my favourite....Christine - Clare, Ireland
Every time i listen it, i cry....
amo a eddie vedder
Mirna - Portoviejo, Ecuador
Regarding the KWS song "While We Cry" and it's similarities..."Ledbetter Heights" the name of the album, refers to an historic, low income neighborhood in Shreveport, named for Huddie Ledbetter. Kings Highway (another KWS song) also refers to a place in Shreveport. KWS grew up in Shreveport where his father "Shotgun" Ken Shepherd was a well known DJ who took young Kenny Wayne to many concerts including Stevie Ray Vaughn where he first got his guitar "bug" while sitting on amps backstage. The song "While We Cry" was recorded long before the album "Ledbetter Heights". It was recorded at the Red River Revel Arts Festival. While I cannot remember the actual date, I believe KWS was 16 at the time. It is pretty safe to assume both songs were inspired by Hendrix.Tina - Shreveport, La
I am a big fan of yellow ledbetter and i think that what the song is about is a dream that eddie has, like he can see himself as a child with someone and he wants to leave the dream because he has few good memories about childhood and he wants to "cry it all away" as he says and i think he has this dream often and maybee it is a little differnt everytime that might be why he sings it differnt everytime.Pete - Syracuse, Ny
I met eddie vedder's cousin, and he said that the whole time eddie was writing this song, he constantly watched barney with his kids.Nathan - Sherwood, Or
One of, if not the best Pearl Jam tune of all! I just LOVE to hear his voice.Selena - Griffin, Ga
This is the ONLY Pearl Jam tune I like alot! I'm not a Pearl Jam fan in general, just like this song. But I never knew that it was about war and someone's brother getting killed in it.

But.... ANYWAYS.... excellent tune nonetheless.
Frank - Brampton, Ontario, Canada
there is a beach called Ledbetter, and eddie has surfed it before. its in Santa Barbara, by the
Michelle - Santa Barbara, Ca
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is an idiot. For him to claim that he wrote "While We Cry" when he obviously ripped off the riff for Yellow Ledbetter is bull. Although it was done very well, I must admit.Jason - Portland, Or
"A riff loosely based on...something I had during the ten sessions. I thought it was pretty. Eddie started making up words on the spot and we kept them. I still don't know what it's about and I don't want to to! I love it! Fans like it too!" -Mike McCready as quoted from the booklet from the 'Lost Dogs' album.Veddie Edder - Seattle (coincidence)
It's a war song. "Yellow" has always been the color that signifies waiting for someone to return from war. (Tie a yellow ribbon...)Michelle - Mandeville, La
I kind of figured out the lyrics on my own before I found this post, but I always thought that it had been written from a dieing soldiers point of view. He is wounded on a beach somewhere and is dieing and sees his life "flashing before his eyes". First he sees his family getting the news ,then his wife or girlfriend.Hence "once I saw her on a beach of weatherd sand" also the lyric "I see them round the front way on the porch but they don't wave" Because it's an out of body experience or spiritual thing. and last the words "I dont know weather it's the box or the bag" he knows he dieing and he finally comes to grips with it.any one else view it this way?Joe Shoemaker - Fort Wayne, In
I kind of figured out the lyrics on my own before I found this on the net, but I always thought that it was written from a dieing soldiers point of view. His "life flasing before his eys" sort of thing. He is killed on the beach some where. Sees his family getting the news,sees his wife or girlfriend and sees them all on the porth but they don't wave. Then hence "I dont know weather its the box or the bag" like the song says. any body else think that?Joe Shoemaker - Fort Wayne, In
I LOVE THIS SONG. the lead singer does mumble his words, when i read the lyrics, it sounded different than what he was actually singing. but this song is very laid-back.Kirsten - Pacific Grpve, Ca
Another possible inspiration for the title of the song is Ledbetter state park on the coast of Washington. I find it ironic that something called ledbetter is located so close to where Pearl Jam started in Seattle.Scott - Ptown, In
I cannot believe the cheek of Kenny Wayne Sheppard. I heard While We Cry at a friends house and my first question was 'where did you get the instrumental version of Yellow Ledbetter?' But then he played it again and KWS introduces it as 'here's a song I wrote.' What a fraud. And to call the albim Ledbetter Heights as well? Give me a break!!!Gary - Sheffield, England
Oh give me a break with the Kenny Wayne Sheppard references! That KWS song's nothing but a ripoff of the Hendrix "Stone Free" riff. Or maybe Hendrix/SRV hybrid. Nothing at all like "Yellow Ledbetter".Ray - Richardson, Tx
Tim, How can a song that was released in '91-'92 be ripped off of a song that was released in '95? Get your facts straight.Joseph - Newport News, Va
perhaps the narrator is the postman who is delivering the yellow letter, hence no one waving and he wanting to leave it allVero - Cowtown, Canada
This songs riff is mostly based on a song by Kenny Wayne Sheppard called While We Cry...which is off the album Ledbetter Heights which makes sence for this song because its called Yellow Ledbetter.Tim - Chicago, Il
This song is really uplifting! And Eddie(He is my hero) vocals sound so crazy and wild. I lve this song so much! The guitar solo fits this song perfectly! Too bad this song wasn't put on their TEN album cause its and awesome song! PEARL JAM R MY FAVE BAD 4EVA!!!!!!!!!!!!Sharpy!!! - Pittsworth, Australia
This song is a pure E-major pentatonic song (even the solo), quite often used for learning this style of guitar playing.

Jimi Hendrix was famous of combining major scales (soft, open sound, listen to the little wing intro) and minor scales (bluesy, harder kind of sound, listen to red house). Stevie Ray Vaughn is another who had the similiar style. Listen to "Lenny", he combines both scales in this song.

Perhaps Pearl Jam was inspired by both.
Mark - Haarlem, Netherlands
Eddie Vedder's brother is a soldier. He wrote this song, which is famous for its anti-war message, due to the fact that he fears the possible reality of getting a letter sent to his house telling him that his brother has been killed.Chris - Scranton, Pa
...easier version....Yellow Ledbetter is about Eddie's(and everyone else's) fascination with death....it's Pearl Jam's updated version of the "Death Letter Blues"...and old blues tune by Son House....done and redone....even Jerry Garcia did it... but probaly most notibly performed by Hubbie Ledbetter(Leadbelly).Joel - Portland, Or
...boxer or a/the bag....a boxing referrence...Doesn't know if he's the one throwing the punches, or the one getting punched.Joel - Portland, Or
P.J.'s "Yellow Ledbetter"...maybe Hubbie's muse from his song "Yellow Gal" died unexpectedly/young, as a Vedder friend or gal may have...Hubbie Ledbetter(The famous Leadbelly) didn't write the "Death Letter Blues", but he sure sang 'em/it...the lyrics from a late version of Death Letter Blues(sung by Jerry Garcia at a Dead concert in the late 60's) have many similarities to the Pearl Jam lyrics...even the original Son House lyrics for Death Letter Blues have much in common...I'm not saying it was ripped-off...on the contrary...I'm saying maybe there are many reasons for the song's odd title...but I would have to venture a guess that Vedder heard Garcia's rare version of "Death Letter Blues" and attributed it to Leadbelly's version of "Death Letter Blues" and went from there...I understand the ideas that it may be a tribute to Jimi...or SRV...but SRV was himself a tribute to Jimi...and a grand Texas tribute he was(I remember getting the bad news about SRV when on vacation from Austin,TX in Port.,Or.)...and since Jimi died, every heavy-metal song with a guitar solo has been a tribute to him...or has tried to be, on some level or another.... Best guess..."Yellow Ledbetter" is Hubbie Ledbetter's version of "Death Letter Blues" as seen thru the ears of Eddie Vedder listening to Jerry Garcia's version of the same...and maybe the "Yellow" part of the title is the clue, referring to Leadbelly's "Yellow Gal"....just a guess....after all...music isn't meant to be understood as much as it's meant to be experienced/felt(ooo...another Jimi referrence?)..it's complex simplicity at it's best... & Yes, Jimi....I have been experienced.Joel - Portland, Or
Indeed, "Little Wing" by Jimmy Hendrix - You'll hear the similar riffs...Brian - Lagrange, Ga
It's very hard to say exactly what this song is about or whom it is for. I believe that the person(s) it was indeed written for will understand that and be able to interpret the meaning. I believe what makes this song a good one to listen to is the fact that you can never understand what the hell is going on and the guitar is amazing!Brian - Lagrange, Ga
I have heard many times that Yellow Ledbetter is a tribute to the late / great Stevie Ray Vaughn.Mark - Waco, Tx
when he says "i don't know whether i was the boxer or the bag" its an analogy. he is questioning blame or guilt.

when he says "i cried and i said that i want what i said" its a clever way of saying he wants to take back what he said before.
J100957468 - St. Petersburg, Fl
Eddie´s singing and the riff are so good it makes me cry every time i listen to it .Marcelo - Buenos Aires, Argentina
hi im jimmy.......yellow ledbetter is a great song to listen to at 5 in the morning when walking down by the water in new yorkJames Wells - Queens, Ny
Just a random thought here reading all of these comments. Those easily identifiable telegrams in WWII I believe were Yellow. Pherhaps the song is more general, talking about the loss of someone to war, but the title is personal. Maybe this friend came and told Eddie about someone in the gulf war, making him a "yellow letter", or as a play on words Yellow Ledbetter. I have no evidence this is true, but an interesting thought anyway.....Ben - London, Canada
The Yellow Ledbetter on Lost Dogs/Jeremy Single/rvm greatest hits is NOT the original version. The original version was recorded during the week of October 23, 1990 during Pearl Jam's first week rehearsals. Ed tape recorded it, and only a few copies were released. Fortunately, the MP3s of the First Week Rehearsals can be found at http://www.f4kin-up.net/fullmp3.asp?P=4 (starting on #204)

The lyrics are A LOT harder to make out then the Lost Dogs/Jeremy single/rvm version, but a lot of them are the same. For example, the mumblings "see, touch, I don't wanna stay, I see them out on the porch but they don't wave" are all present, as they are in pretty much every live version of the song.

I don't think there is any one meaning to this song, I am sure it means something to Ed, and he doesn't expect all the fans to figure out what he thinks. It can be applied to pretty much any sad situation, but judging from the letter on the porch, and the live mumblings (example from Madison square garden "I'll never see my brother alive again") it could be a song about losing a family member in a war.
Arman - College Station, Tx
There is a Kenny Wayne Shepherd CD "Ledbetter Heights". Song no. 12 is Ledbetter Heights, an instrumental, with Shepherd as the writer, (1994 Only Hit Music). It's very much the same song but I miss some of the magic McCready puts to it. I never knew the lyrics until I came to this website, but because of the passion Pearl Jam instills in this particular piece, it's always been one of my favorite songs.Deanna - Los Angeles, Ca
Sometimes I'm sure that when Eddie sings the "box or a bag" part he says something like: "I don't know if he's coming home in a box or a bag," which would lend itself to the idea that someone close to him died in a war that Eddie was not overly supportive of.

As a side note, I have a live CD of a concert PJ played in Seattle in 2000. The solo that McCready plays for Yellow Ledbetter is the best solo I have ever heard by any guitarist in any song ever.
Danton - Saskatoon, Canada
Always believed that the box or bag line had something to do with body bags or caskets that the bodies were coming home in after the war. And the folks on the porch don't want to wave because of the reminder that it is of their dead son.Mike - Seattle, Wa
This song was finally released on a Pearl Jam album, their 2003 album "Lost Dogs: B-Sides & Rarities.Chris - Andover, Mn
Yellow ledbetter is another war song. Its about a man who just learns that his brother died at war and he wishes his brother never went to war and he was dead instead. During most live shows he mentions his brother being gone or left.Chris - Wellington, New Zealand
a bit more on the song the line in the song is "I dont know the winner between the boxer or the bag" to me it's asking who wins the guy who throws the punches and receives nothing back at him or the bag that receives the punches but feels no pain. I dont think it's about a previous girlfriend, eddies been with his wife now for many, many years. I think maybe the gulf war thing alittle, Like Mike said it was written very quickly at a Ten session chances are Eddie just sticks random lines together with no real thought or meaning and they kinda stuck...Andy - Leeds, United States
several members of the band have commented on the meaning of the song's lyrics. while they have not been particularly forthcoming as to details, they have said the song is about a friend or aquaintance who died in the first gulf war. while eddie sings different variations on the lyrics at different times there are some things that don't change: the opening, "an unsealed letter on a porch"; the rhetorical question, "i don't know if i was the boxer or the bag", and the repeated cry of "i don't want to stay". it's a song about grief upon learning a loved one is gone.G - New York, Ny
Pat, I kinda liked how they played this on the final episode of Friends. I think it really went with the mood of that part of the show.Jake - Perry, Ia
I also believe that this song was done as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix because I have a live version that the guitarist plays a bit of Hendrix' world famous version of the Star Spangled Banner.David - Lafayette, In
How do you all feel about the fact that a snippet of this song was used on the Friends final?? I thought it was very uncharacteristic of Pearl Jam - they used to be so anti-commercialism, now they've sold this song to a silly sitcom! I am sad about this...Pat - Wellington, New Zealand
Featured in the final episode of Friends.Andrew - Toronto, Canada
In the lycos chat that pearl jam had, Ed said the song was written about the desert storm war in 90-91Jason - Worcester, Ma
Actually, Yellow Ledbetter first appeared on the Jeremy single, which came out in 1992 (http://www.pearljam.com/singles.html). In the liner notes of Lost Dogs, Mike McCready has this to say, "A riff loosely based on...something I had huring the Ten sessions. I thought it was pretty. Eddie started making up words on the spot and we kept them. I still don't know what it's about and I don't want to. I love it. Fans like it too."
The something that the riff is loosely based on is Hendrix's "Little Wing," as previously mentioned. An in-depth exploration of the live performance of the song (which is what debuted on the 6th of November in 1993) can be found at http://www.fivehorizons.com/songs/apr99/index.shtml
Jon - Redlands, Ca
I heard it was the dead soldier thing too.Fiona - Philadelphia, Pa
I've heard many interpretations of this song, and the only one that I have heard that makes the most sense is that there was a beach called Ledbetter Point in which Eddie used to surf the waves. He returned to that beach and it was all polluted and such..."On a ceiling, on a porch of glitter, I said, bad to say it, I wanna leave it again. Once I saw Hell on a beach all weathered I said, gone to say, I want to leave it again...make sense, anyone?Chris - Altoona, Pa
Hmm, I like the Leadbelly idea - wasn't vinyl printed on yellow records back then... Also if the last idea is true, maybe the box or bag refers to a coffin or body bag? And maybe there are two and thats why they don't wave because they're dead in a hurst or something comming "round the front way"

peace bros
Pizza - Kuna, Id
I would imagine those lyrics, are what was intended to be sang. But eventually Eddie just mumbled them out, if you listen to the song and read the lyrics some of the words don't sound right at all.Brian - Paoli, In
Heres the lyrics on the Jeremy single:
On a porch a letter sat
Then you said i wanna leave it again

Once i saw him
On a beach of weathered sand
And on the sand i wanna leave it again

On a weekend wanna wish it all way
And they called an i said an i want what
i said an i call out again

And the reason oughta leave her calm i know
I said i know what i wear that a box or the bag

Oh yeah can you see them?
Out on the porch
Ah, but they don't wave
I see them
Round the front way, yeah
And i know and i know
I don't wanna stay

make me cry

I see
I don't know there's something else
I wanna drum it all away
An i said
I said i i don't know where there's a box or the bag

Oh yeah can you see them?
Out on the porch
Ah, but they don't wave
I see them
Round the front way, yeah
And i know and i know
I don't wanna stay
I don't wanna stay
I don't wanna stay
Sam - Inianapolis, In
The guitar is Mike Mcready's interpretation of "Little Wing" by Hendrix, obviously it isn't a cover though.Brian - Paoli, In
the way i see the meaning of this song is about love lost. i think he is talking about losing a girlfriend.the sadness of his voice and the lyrics to me mean he is upset about a former girlfriend.Allen - Ruston, La
YL was debuted on 11/6/93 (although riffs appeared during various 92 shows), the day after the infamous Indio show (the 'shoes for my friends show'), in Mesa, Arizona, the first of two benefit shows for Mt. Graham. Mt. Graham is a sacred mountain to the Apache indians, and the University of Arizona was going to build an observatory at the top of it. This is an oddly intense show; it was a political protest, and we know how Ed (lead singer) gets when he's fired up politically, especially back then.
We've got no documentation how or why the band decided to play this song live for the first time, but this was the beginning of a trend that was to continue up until this very day.
For the most part the lyrics in this song are irrelevant. The song was written by Mike McCready and Eddie just made up the words as he went along. Eddie's voice is supposed to be more of an instrument by using improvised words, the words are never the same in concert. Ledbetter refers to Eddie's friend from Chicago named Tim Ledbetter. If there is any meaning to the lyrics I think the letter in the beginning of the song refers to the telegrams that we sent to the families of soldiers KIA in WWII. The telegrams were so distinct that many families didn't have to open them to know what they said. In the song I see a family sitting on a porch when a man comes to deliver a telegram and the family is so devestated about their loss that they cannot even bear to open it.
. the man is sad and wants to leave because he cannot deal with the pain of losing his brother. this is the true meaning of the song, as for the name it is just a joke between eddie and his friend with the last name ledbetter
Live Freak - Beirut, Other
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