Inside The Yellow Letter: A Deeper Look into Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” (E2D3)

Upon first hearing the song ?Yellow Ledbetter? by Pearl Jam, it may be difficult to tell what exactly this song means or understand the message it is trying to convey. But, after further examination and listening, it becomes obvious that it is sending across a strong, deep, and powerful feeling. It was written by Pearl Jam?s lead singer, Eddie Vedder. He wrote it to convey his feelings on how war can be wrong, and that he is strongly against it. Although there are no official or consistent lyrics or music video, the listener gets the feeling that this is a deeply meaningful song. And, once you know the meaning, it gives the song a purpose that the listener can relate to and have their own feeling toward. 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. The ambiguous lyrics make it so that an idea is not being forced on the listener, but points you in the direction to feel a certain way about war and it?s repercussions. 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 lyrics, music, and background of this song give it a quality that I think is truly hard to come across anywhere else. And, after further listening and research, I think one can determine why this is true.

In the official and most widely heard version that is available on iTunes, most of the lyrics are mumbled and hard to understand. But, there are some very key lines of the song that are clear every time. The song always begins with ?Unsealed on a porch, a letter sat?? and the chorus always includes ?I don?t know whether I?m the boxer or the bag/I don?t know whether he?s coming home in a box or a bag?, along with a line about someone/something ??out on the porch, but they don?t wave.? The letter, or yellow letter, that is mentioned in the first line and in the title of the song is mostly likely a reference to the yellow envelope which contained a telegram that was delivered to families to inform them of the death of a loved one who was fighting overseas during the Gulf War.(, in the chorus, the ?box or the bag? refers to the fact that someone has died in the war and will be returned home. ( This line becomes even more important in the live versions of this song. Finally, the clear line about being on the porch and not waving might either be saying that the American flag on the porch is not waving and flying proudly, or that someone has come in person to deliver the bad news.( According to the band, the song was written sometime around the Gulf War, which gave them the inspiration to write it. (Weissman, Dick.)

The official version of this song only tells part of the story. In the hundreds of live concerts that Pearl Jam has performed, the lyrics of ?Yellow Ledbetter? vary each time. Instead of mumbling and slurring the lyrics, Eddie Vedder ad-libs and sings them very clearly. 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. When they play in Seattle, their home city, the song is about how much they enjoy being home. But usually, the lyrics are clearly about their opposition to war. In many cases the lyrics became ?I don?t know whether my brother is coming home in a box or a bag?? and more specific war-related lines. During concerts shortly after 9/11 and the resulting war on terror, the band made it very prevalent that they were unhappy with the war through the lyrics and comments about the Bush Administration. In a CBS report on a Pearl Jam concert by Matt Dolloff, which was written directly after a concert in Camden, New Jersey, Eddie Vedder comments on the actual meaning of the song ?Yellow Ledbetter?. He talks about how it is an anti-patriotic song, and sings ?I think of him when I go to bed, and he?s coming home in a box or a bag.?(A to Z Eddie Vedder?)The article is very short, but these comments add to the meaning of the song.

Along with the lyrics and timing of this song, the band has another method of conveying their feeling to the audience: the music. 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 it sounds like Pearl Jam is heading in that direction even in the first few notes. Huffington Post writer Chuck Gutenson wrote about how Pearl Jam uses Jimi Hendrix?s style when he said:

?Nevertheless, long before I could even take a stab at the lyrics, the quasi-Hendrix like guitar lead lines seemed incredibly haunting, reminiscent of Hendrix?s ?Little Wing? or, maybe, a little like parts of ?And the Wind Cries Mary.?

in an article about this song. (Gutenson, Chuck.) Not only does Pearl Jam use lyrics as a medium to connect with their audience, but the musical notes themselves carry weight in influencing the listener. The style of this song was also almost certainly influenced by musician Huddie Ledbetter. The band used a sort of play-on-words and combined his last name with ?yellow letter? to create the title ?Yellow Ledbetter?. Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly, was a famous blues musician in the 1940?s. He was famous for not only his great voice and talent on the guitar, but for his songs about issues that were going on during his time as an artist.( He just happens to be the personal guitar idol of Pearl Jam?s guitarist, Mike Mcready. It is truly amazing that Pearl Jam can give a song so much weight without even saying anything.

Chuck Gutenson really hits the nail on the head in his article in the Huffinton Post, Yellow Ledbetter?s War Commentary?, when he writes:

The tendency to glorify war is prevalent in most societies. It would be worth reflecting on the sociological reasons for this and the psychological effect it is intended to have on those who are called to make the ?ultimate sacrifice.? Part of me wishes that before anyone could be allowed to enlist and before any congress or president could send folks off to war, they would have to immerse themselves in the realities of those who suffer. Both a realistic assessment of the ugliness and things to be gained in any given war? that would bring a level of realism to engagement in war that is sorely missing.

This quote captures exactly what I think Pearl Jam is trying to say in the song. The consequences of engaging in a war and sending soldiers to fight is often overlooked by those who do not actually do the fighting. ?Yellow Ledbetter? is an ode or sign of appreciation to those who do go off to war, and gives a voice to those who suffer as a result. This is what makes this song so truly powerful.

I think that this text can be so 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. When the message all comes together, it is a very powerful reminder of the harsh consequences of war. It is something that may bring back a memory or strike a feeling, and when the true meaning is discovered, it has a deep effect on you. The way that they send across a message without forcing it onto the person listening 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. It makes lyrics such as the ?box/boxer or the bag? clearly meaningful, even if you don?t know exactly what the song is about. Ever since the first time I heard this song as a young kid, it has struck an emotion and brought up memories in a way that other songs can not. I think that the depth and search for a meaning is something that gives this song a quality that is hard to achieve. Overall, the text and music of ?Yellow Ledbetter? by Pearl Jam is something that draws me in every time I hear it. I will always be intrigued by the style of songwriting and how well it is executed.


First, I would like to acknowledge and thank Professor Harris for giving me an interesting and engaging assignment, for his guidance and advice throughout the writing process, and for his sincere interest in improving my writing. Next I would like to thank the members of my workshop group; Dyllan Moxim, Stephen Tortora, and Kira Lyle for their help in our workshop sessions in class. I would also like to thank Kira Lyle for the good advice and tips she offered when we talked one-on-one about each other?s pieces several times. I would like to thank my Mom, Lisa, for offering her opinions and suggestions after proofreading my essay. Finally, I would like to thank my Dad for introducing me to my primary text and providing me with something that I could be interested and passionate about writing about.

Author?s Memo:

This essay really started out as a simple idea. When I was trying to think of a primary text that I?d like to ?be a critic? about, this song popped into my head. It is one of my favorite songs, and has always intrigued me and been important to me. As I developed my thoughts and did some research, my essay continued to grow, but needed some help. After some good advice from Professor Harris, I think I gave it the structure and direction it needed to show my train of thought and become a strong essay. It is an essay that I can truly say I am very proud of. I am particularly happy with how I was able to accurately put into words the method that Pearl Jam uses to make this song so meaningful.


?A to Z: Eddie Vedder Revealed the Meaning Behind Pearl Jam?s ?Yellow Ledbetter? at a Show in Mansfield.? 1007 WZLX. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Gutenson, Chuck. ?Yellow Ledbetter?s War Commentary?? The Huffington Post., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

?Huddie Ledbetter.? A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

?Pearl Jam ? Yellow Ledbetter Lyrics | SongMeanings.? SongMeanings. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Weissman, Dick. Talkin? ?Bout a Revolution. N.p.: Backbeat, 2010. Google Ebooks. 1 May 2010. Web

?Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam Songfacts.? Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam Songfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.


No Responses

Write a response