Anti-establishment protest songs, and music about man’s inhumanity to man, have probably been around ever since a human being first figured out how to sing a melody. “Redemption Day,” from Sheryl Crow’s self-titled 1996 second album, is a combination of the two.
Inspired by Crow’s reaction to events in the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda, “Redemption Day” has become a model of sorts for how to communicate emotionally in a not-so-traditional form. Crow wrote the song after a USO tour with Hillary Clinton to war-torn Bosnia, where ethnic cleansing, mass rape and indiscriminate shelling had occurred for several years. How Crow was affected by the trip, and by other crises in the world, is obvious from the lyrics and her performance. As opposed to something that’s written from someone’s imagination, this song about the plight and oppression of the poor and the innocent couldn’t have been written nearly as well by someone who hadn’t physically experienced the postwar atmosphere on some level.
Something else notable about the lyrics is Crow’s extensive use of words that contain the long “a” sound, especially words ending with a syllable that rhymes with “ate.” Numerous lines here end with that rhyme, particularly in the unusually long extension of the second verse that leads into the first two lines of the chorus:
Throw us a bone but save the plate
Oh why we waited ‘til so late
Was there no oil to excavate
No riches in trade for the fate
Of every person who died in hate
Throw us a bone, you men of great
To the chorus:
There is a train that’s heading straight
To heaven’s gate, to heaven’s gate
It’s not all that much of a trick to find a lot of words that rhyme, but finding words that rhyme and actually support continuity of thought is a different skill altogether, and Crow showed that she has that talent here. This song is also a great example of how a situation, and the emotional reaction to it, can make the right words show up when they need to. Kind of like the “Leap, and the net will appear” axiom. The song ends with half a verse where a chorus may be expected, and almost seems anti-climactic. But instead of coming off like something is missing, it works perfectly.
“Redemption Day” was later recorded by Johnny Cash and included on American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the Cash album posthumously released in 2010. “Having Johnny Cash record one of my songs was my biggest accomplishment as a songwriter,” Crow told Southern Living magazine. “Talk about bringing weight to a song. He owned it. Afterward, he called me and asked if I liked his version and quizzed me about why I wrote ‘Redemption Day.’ But we never got to sing it together. He died three months later.” After hearing Cash’s recording, she combined their respective takes into a new arrangement for live performance with video. Crow’s version of the song also was used in a scene from the 2000 Julia Roberts movie Erin Brockovich, an appropriate placement given the film’s theme of Brockovich’s struggles on behalf of the underdog.