Opening the Yellow Letter: A deeper look at Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter”
Upon first hearing the song “Yellow Ledbetter”, the jumbled words and undecipherable lyrics might sound like a song that has no meaning and conveys no message. But after further listening and examination, it becomes clear that there is much more to this song than you might expect. Eddie Vedder, lead singer and guitar player of Pearl Jam, wrote this song to convey a feeling to the listener. Although there are no official lyrics or music video to this song, and the words are different every time they play it live, it is known that Yellow Ledbetter is an anti-war song. What intrigues me about this particular text is how Pearl Jam wrote it so that it is simple and vague enough that it does not force an opinion on the listener, but powerful and inspirational enough to get its message across.
There are hundreds of different versions of the lyrics to Yellow Ledbetter posted online, all by fans who try to interpret Eddie Vedder’s hard-to-understand dialogue in the song. In reality, there are no official lyrics, except for a few key lines of the song. In the official version, as well as in live concerts, it always starts with “Unsealed on a porch, a letter sat…”, and the chorus always includes either “I don’t know whether I’m the boxer or the bag” or “I don’t know whether he’s coming home in a box or a bag”. In the official version that can be purchased on iTunes, the rest of the lyrics are very hard to understand. But, in concert, the rest of the lyrics are usually ad-libbed and very clear. They reveal that the song is about someone going off to war and dying in combat. The “yellow letter” that is mentioned could be the slang reference to the normal color of a telegraph/letter that families receive when a member of the family has been killed in the line of duty, and it sits on the porch unsealed because perhaps someone opened it and doesn’t want to accept it’s contents. In many live performances, Vedder mentions his “brother” when talking about the box or the bag. This could mean that a body will be coming home from the war. Even though these lyrics start to give the reader a hint to what this song could be about, they are just a small part of what Pearl Jam is trying to say.
According to the band, Yellow Ledbetter was written sometime around the Gulf War, which would have given Eddie the idea for such a song. And during the concerts shortly after 9/11 and the war on terror, Eddie Vedder made it obvious that he was singing about the consequences and harsh realities of war, and was also very outspoken about his disappointment in the Bush administration. But besides the timing of the song, there is another aspect that listeners might pick up on that points to it being an anti-war song. The opening guitar riff and long solo in the middle are admittedly an ode to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. Jimi Hendrix was openly anti-war during his time as a famous musician, and Pearl Jam amplifies his ideas in their own silent protest, Yellow Ledbetter.
What I find most intriguing about the song is how it strikes a perfect balance of pushing and idea while still letting the listener use their imagination. I think that this text is so powerful and meaningful to the listener because of the fact that even though there are few actual words, they know that there is strong meaning and message buried in the lyrics and music, and they can make it mean whatever they want. It is something that may bring back a memory or strike a feeling, and when the true meaning is discovered, it has a powerful effect on you. The way that they send across a message without forcing it onto the person listening to the song is an incredibly hard thing to do in writing, and the way Pearl Jam does it so masterfully in Yellow Ledbetter can be seen as true art. Lyrics such as the “box/boxer or the bag” are clearly meaningful, even if you don’t know exactly what the song is about. I think that the depth and search for a meaning is also something that gives this song its quality.
Overall, the text and music of “Yellow Ledbetter” by Pearl Jam is something that draws me in every time I hear it. I am intrigued by the style of songwriting and how well it is executed. The way they convey their message and the message of anti-war is interesting to me, and I think that it is something that would be very difficult to replicate.