29 Oct 2020 · 11 min read
The history of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is a fascinating one. Cohen’s songs had never really been embraced by the masses, and his first recording of “Hallelujah” in the early eighties was part of an album so lacking in obvious commercial appeal that the president of CBS Records responded to it by saying: “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”
That recording was released, however, a little later on a small independent label, but few people took note of the album or of this particular song. Even for Cohen’s small set of fans, it did not seem like a particularly memorable recording.
But then a funny series of events began to play out over the next couple of decades. John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, and himself not a household name, recorded a version of the song for a Cohen tribute album in 1991. Again, few took notice.
Then singer-guitarist Jeff Buckley stumbled across Cale’s recording while apartment-sitting for a friend, and he recorded another version of the song in 1994. Buckley suffered an unfortunate and early demise in 1997. However, his recording of the song achieved considerable posthumous critical and commercial recognition.
Then, of all things, the song was chosen for use in an animated film: a little thing called Shrek. Cale’s version was used in the film itself, but yet another version, recorded by Rufus Wainwright, was used on the soundtrack. Both the film and the album were enormous commercial successes, and so the song received exposure to an even wider audience.
Since then, of course, the song has been mainlined into our collective consciousness, and has been sung, recorded and played by just about everyone, and used to commemorate just about every sort of occasion.
Cohen himself performed the song during frequent tours in his later years. He was asked at one point whether he was growing tired of hearing so many cover versions, especially given the wide range of quality in these various performances and recordings. To his credit, he responded by saying that he was very happy that it was being sung. And so he should have been – for a songwriter who cared so deeply about his craft, it must have given him great satisfaction to see one of his greatest works being sung and appreciated by so many.
Cohen had said that he had worked on this particular song for a number of years, and at some point had written literally scores of different verses for possible use. And in fact, Cohen himself performed different versions of the song over the years, and the many cover versions often pick and choose particular verses for inclusion.
Cohen, of course, like most songwriters, was reluctant to comment on the meaning of his own work, and rightly so: if there was another, simpler way to communicate what he wanted to say, then he wouldn’t have had to spend years crafting the song, and wouldn’t have had to wait decades for his creation to find its audience.
And yet, without meaning any disrespect, I would like to make some observations on various pieces of the song, how they work together, and how they form a whole greater than the sum of the parts, a whole with some particular meaning for those who care to listen more deeply.
I’ve tried to assemble a sort of canonical version of the lyrics below, including all of the verses sung by Cohen in his studio and live recordings, and included in the most popular cover versions. If the lyrics in places seem to deviate from oft-heard versions, it’s because, in cases of conflict, I’ve used the words sung by Cohen himself on the Live in London disc recorded in 2009.
Let’s start, however, by considering the music. The first thing to note is that the music is rather simple and straightforward, which is perhaps one reason why so many people have performed it, and why so many people have listened to it. There is nothing tricky or alternative or difficult about the music. The verses have a sort of lilting, almost sing-song, rhythm to them, a device that is easy to emulate and difficult to break: that music has a sort of life of its own that carries the song along, no matter who is singing it.
Looking at the chorus, once again, we are struck by the utter simplicity of it: just the repetition of that one word, “Hallelujah,” to music that is somber, reverent, seeming to ask a question, and then receiving and accepting an answer. Cohen packs so much human yearning and resolution into the repetition of this one word. But also, through the repetition of this one word to form the chorus, and then the repetition of the chorus at the end of every verse, Cohen manages to convey a sort of steadfast endurance, a sense that we humans, over the course of our ever rising and falling fortunes, always return to this one word, these four syllables that give thanks for some kind of wholeness that we manage to forge out of all we experience.
Now let’s turn to the verses. The words present one side of a dialogue between the singer and some other figure in his life, perhaps a former lover. The dialogue is a dispute of sorts, arguing in some sense over the meaning of this very word, “Hallelujah,” and their respective rights to use it. And note that the structure of each verse is the same, each starting with words that seem to dismiss and demean any sense of the holy, but then returning in the final lines to discover and reveal an enhanced awareness of meaning in their lives, rising each time to conclude in this proclamation of “Hallelujah!”.
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing “Hallelujah.”
The singer/songwriter starts out by citing a religious source, pointing out that even in the Christian Bible, David played a secret chord that pleased the Lord, but then recalling that the person he is arguing with doesn’t really care much for music. But then Cohen proceeds anyway, explaining how his song works, with the minor fall followed by the major lift, and then coming back to a Biblical image of the baffled king composing “Hallelujah.”
So what is Cohen arguing for here? Some sense of mystery, certainly, citing the “secret chord” and the “baffled king,” perhaps in contrast to a more rigid and strict interpretation of when it is appropriate to use this frankly religious term. And he also seems to be suggesting that perhaps even a contemporary artist such as himself might hope to emulate David and please the Lord through his music.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof,
You saw her bathing on the roof:
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you
To a kitchen chair,
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair,
And from your lips she drew the “Hallelujah”!
Cohen then proceeds to tell a story with obvious references to Samson and Delilah from the Bible, and in this telling, Samson is overthrown by Delilah’s beauty when he observes her bathing in the moonlight, and yet he utters this word, “Hallelujah,” even after losing his power and position and dignity. And so now we have Cohen holding up a very worldly beauty and defending our right to use this holy word in gratitude when in its presence.
You say I took the name in vain.
I don’t even know the name,
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word,
It doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken “Hallelujah.”
Again, Cohen’s lover seems to argue that such holy language be reserved for usage in a formal religious context, but Cohen responds as a contemporary artist living in the material world as it is, and yet arguing that there’s “a blaze of light” in every word, whether this word “Hallelujah” is used in praise of some divine order, or whether it is used in praise of some other mysterious order that can still be discerned even in this broken world we seem to inhabit.
Now maybe there’s a God above,
As for me, all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.
But it’s not a cry that you hear at night,
It’s not some pilgrim who claims to have seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken “Hallelujah.”
Here Cohen admits that perhaps there is some God above, but then quickly proceeds to return our contemplation of love to a more worldly plane. But then he mixes this sense of love, this expression of “Hallelujah,” into this worldly pot of love, insisting that this feeling of reverence and gratitude is not associated with someone seeking divine revelation, but is found with someone suffering from loss of love in this cold and broken world.
Cohen’s message, if we can call it that, now seems to be clearer: he’s not impressed with some learned sense of piety associated with an organized religion, but wants to share instead some earned sense of wholeness that comes, not out of denial of the mortal world, but out of a full experience and acceptance of all its pieces.
In fact, Cohen once said that this song came from “a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.” At another time he said: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can … reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”
Baby, I’ve been here before,
I know this room and I’ve walked this floor,
You see, I used to live alone before I knew ya.
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
But love is not some kind of victory march,
No, it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah.
Cohen now tells this other figure that he knows what she is experiencing, perhaps after losing a love and experiencing a sense of abandonment. But he then goes on to argue that love is not merely a matter of public conquests, something we feel when romantically involved with a mate, but something that wells out of us, even when feeling cold and alone.
There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below,
But now you never show it to me, do ya?
I remember when I moved in you,
And the holy dove was moving too,
And every breath we drew was “Hallelujah”!
Again, Cohen reminds this other figure that we find solace, not in suppressing our emotions, but in fully feeling them and sharing them. And he reminds her of the sacred feelings they once felt in the physical act of love.
I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though
It all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but “Hallelujah.”
Now, in this final verse, Cohen begins by dismissing his efforts to love this other person, not romanticizing them, but simply presenting them for what they are. But then, even with this admission of defeat and failure, he makes his final and clearest claim to use of this word he has been repeating, standing not before some traditional religious God, but before his own ultimate master, “the Lord of Song,” with no other word on his lips than “Hallelujah.”
What a majestic work Cohen has left us. Its words and music are so plain, so commonplace, and yet it is almost impossible for us to hear them without being lifted up, without feeling in the presence of some sort of mystery that we can never fully comprehend, and yet that is constantly going on around us.
If so many of us sing this song, “Hallelujah,” or pause to listen to it, no matter how many times we have heard it before, then perhaps it is because Cohen’s work reclaims for all of us our right to use this word, to express this benediction, to feel this sense of gratitude, this sense of wholeness and acceptance, no matter what our religious beliefs, no matter what our position in this world, no matter what loss we suffered yesterday or may suffer tomorrow.
In dual consideration of Cohen’s achievement, as well as of his recent demise, I am reminded of these words from G. K. Chesterton.
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.
The center of every man’s existence is a dream. Death, disease, insanity, are merely material accidents, like a toothache or a twisted ankle. That these brutal forces always besiege and often capture the citadel does not prove that they are the citadel.
Like every great artist, Cohen has changed the way in which we view the world, has restored sight to our blinded eyes. He was well aware in his final months that his body was failing him, that his life would soon end. And yet I hope that, in those last days and moments, he took some comfort in knowing that, not only had he bestowed such a great gift upon the world, but that the Lord of Song had looked down upon his work, and was happy to hear it being sung on so many lips.