A song by Pearl Jam, originally released as a B-side to the Jeremy single. It is a fan favourite that is often played live but has not appeared on any studio albums, though it was included on the B-sides collection Lost Dogs. The now-classic intro riff was written and played by Mike McCready (probably influenced by Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing). The lyrics have never been revealed by the band, and are often improvised from performance to performance.
The only part of the song where anyone can be sure about the lyrics is the chorus (which is usually the same in every performance):
Can you see them?
Out on the porch (yeah)
But they don't wave.
I see them...
Round the front way (yeah)
And I know and I know...
I don't wanna stay.
Eddie Vedder's mumbled vocal style makes it very difficult for anyone to accurately transcribe the rest of the lyrics. Some good guesses can be found by searching online lyric sites. Pearl Jam are very reluctant to offer explanations of their songs, and Yellow Ledbetter is a particularly difficult one to understand. Clearly the verse lyrics are quite personal as they tend to be more mumbled and are usually changed for live performances (where perhaps Eddie doesn't feel comfortable revealing his thoughts to the crowd).
(Warning: subjective analysis follows)
My own theory about the song requires a little background knowledge of Pearl Jam before I can explain it to you. Basically, before Pearl Jam even existed, Eddie was friends with ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Jack, in turn, was friends with ex-Mother Love Bone guitarist and bassist, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament. Stone and Jeff had recorded some instrumental demo tapes and were looking for a singer. Jack gave these tapes to Eddie who recorded vocals over the top and sent them back to Stone and Jeff. They were so impressed that they invited Eddie (living in San Diego at the time) up to Seattle to record with them. So Pearl Jam was formed.
How does this tie in with the song? Well, the Jeremy B-side version of the song talks about an unsealed letter on a porch. I believe this may be referring to the demo tapes that Jack had mailed to Eddie. In live performances Eddie sings "and I write and I write and I don't believe it's gonna change today". He also refers to a woman (presumably his girlfriend at the time, Beth Liebling) who he isn't going to see again. However, he states "And the reason oughta leave her calm, I know".
Therefore, I believe the song to be about Eddie choosing to move to Seattle to fulfil his rock dream, whilst having to leave his girlfriend behind - whom he hopes will be understanding. It's a song about those often conflicting interests of love and ambition. Later versions of the song have different lyrics because Eddie now knows in hindsight that he made the right choice, helping create arguably the most successful rock band of the nineties.
Please note that this is all mere speculation. Pearl Jam's own philosophy is that the song's interpretation should be up to the listener. The only way to really appreciate this beautiful piece of music is to listen to it yourself and draw your own conclusions.
http://www.allmusic.com for details of PJ's formation