THE BLOG
01/18/2006 11:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Yellow Ledbetter's War Commentary?

I have always been fascinated with the way songs manage to comment upon, either explicitly or implicitly, on contermporary events. One of my favorites from that perspective is Pearl Jam's song "Yellow Ledbetter." Part of the difficulty is Eddie Vedder's tendency to slur the words when he sings them, and another difficulty is that it is rumored that he tends to ad lib the words quite a bit. So, there seems to be no "official" lyrics. 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."
So, how do we comment on a song like this? No official, or even consistent, lyrics, great debate about the meaning, if any. Well, we go into "reader response" mode. First, my best take on the lyrics (from the only time I've heard it live, in Lexington, Ky):

Yellow Ledbetter

Unsealed on the way side, a letter sat
And I know my brother...it's all the same
He ain't coming, I know he ain't coming back
So, I walk, try to walk it off again
On the way side, I wish I could wish it all away, yeah
And I tried and I thought and think of the message I couldn't really hear
On the way, I got this letter and it said....
I don't know if he's coming in the box or a bag

Can you see them? Out on the porch, yeah
But they don't wave.
I see them, out on the front way, yeah
And I know and I know I don't wanna stay

When I see them, I'd like to wish it all away
I tried and I think of all the letters I never will get
And I won't I won't accept this
Cause he's dead and now
I don't know whether he's coming in the box or the bag

chorus

And, now, what is this all about? Essentially, I think, it's an anti-war song. The "letter" is the letter that comes to advise you that a family member has been lost in war. The letter is "unsealed," but it just sets on the porch--no one wants to accept its contents. In some other versions, he sings about walking with his brother on a "beach of weathered sand." The words are so slurred, some have taken it as something else, but the reference to "brother" in this version makes it clearer. At the chorus, he sees the family "on the front porch" but "they don't wave." War and the loss of a brother, son, etc. has them, what should we say, in shock? The most confusing lines, if you "google" this, have to do with the "box or the bag." The way it's sung, it could be "boxer or the bag." But, I think Vedder is just slurring "box" and, given the rest, the idea is that he doesn't even know how his brother's body is coming back.
Apparently, this song was first performed sometime around the first Gulf War. It is a bitter reminder of the harsh realities of war, isn't it? 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 any one 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.
In a sense, I wonder if folks like Cindy Sheehan are not trying to sing their own "Yellow Ledbetters" to the rest of us who have no idea what it is like to get that "letter"......

For a longer version and commentary, join us at http://imitatiochristi.blogs.com/imitatio_christi/2006/01/a_song_and_a_re.html