Hallelujah for and by Leonard Cohen

December 9, 2012

Years ago my former student Kate Strycker and I exchanged CDs of some of our favorite songs. On one she included a couple of songs by a late artist I’d never heard of, Jeff Buckley. One strung-out song had lyrics rendered powerfully by Jeff’s delivery, and some synapses somewhere in my brain fired weakly…there was something familiar about this work. The trigger wasn’t the vocalist or the music, instead it was the intelligent, knowing, and wistful lyrics with their mix of Biblical and sexual imagery.

If you want to purchase any of the many recordings referenced in this long post, here are Amazon MP3 links:
Jeff Buckley: Hallelujah
Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah
John Cale – Hallelujah
Rufus Wainwright – Hallelujah
kd Lang – Hallelujah
Leonard Cohen – Everybody Knows
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (album)
Teddy Thompson – Tonight Will Be Fine
Leonard Cohen – Tonight Will Be Fine
Antony – If It Be Your Will
Leonard Cohen – If It Be Your Will
Leonard Cohen – Tower of Song
Leonard Cohen – The Future (album)

It took some research to discover that Hallelujah had wondrous lyrics because it was written by the incomparable song poet Leonard Cohen. The song was on the Various Positions album, which was originally rejected by Cohen’s record label, and it made it out on an independent label in 1984 but remained obscure for years.

Close attention reveals that Buckley’s version has omitted some of Cohen’s original verses and included several alternates. These were drawn from a later secularized version of Hallelujah which Cohen started performing live after the initial album version failed to gain any headway. Cohen has said this song, like many others, took him years to write. In this case, he wrote and discarded dozens of different verses before alighting on the four he used in the original recording, three of which were replaced in the alternate version.

Betty Henderson, my friend and colleague, and I were introduced to the tremendously talented Canadian singer/songwriter’s works by Professor Bill Reynolds when we took a couple of graduate curriculum courses via compressed video from OSU in the 1990s. Prof. Reynolds had assigned us to watch the movie Pump Up the Volume, which featured Cohen’s hauntingly cynical Everybody Knows. We were both fascinated by the shattering bass voice linked to such powerful lyrics. That led us to the I’m Your Man album and beyond.

Cohen’s voice has deepened over the years, in part due to cigarettes, and he has limited vocal range. His wonderful Tower of Song even has an ironic verse which alludes to this: “I was born like this, I had no choice; I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” When Cohen received Canada’s Juno award for Best Male Vocalist for his album The Future, he quipped, “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.” (I concur with the Canadians: The Future is my next favorite Cohen album after I’m Your Man.)

But despite his vocal limitations, he is a marvelous poet and songwriter, and I now own 84 songs sung by Cohen, plus many covers since often a song of his reaches new heights, or depths, when interpreted by others. I’ve mentioned before how wonderful Teddy Thompson’s take on Cohen’s Tonight Will Be Fine is, a somber reinterpretation of Cohen’s sing-songy original take on it. The change in style shifts it from a cheeky song about an affair into a tale of sorrow, loneliness, and desperation. The power in the words was there, waiting for the right artist to illuminate it.

Another example is how Antony sung from the heart in his gutwrenching version of If It Be Your Will. You can both see and hear the pain of experience from this transgender singer in his performance, granting a pathos absent from Cohen’s original recording. My heart breaks when the 6’4″ man with the voice of an angel sings, “Let your mercy spill on all these burning hearts in Hell, if it be your will to make us well.” Cohen’s lyrics in this context could be taken as a plea for some sort of “cure”, a supernatural change to conform those who are different to society’s norms. But I am confident Antony would instead interpret them as a plea for society itself to change in its tolerance and acceptance of people of all different sexualities, freeing them from a man-made hell on Earth.

Buckley’s version of Hallelujah is the best known and it rescued the song from obscurity; it owes much to John Cale’s cover on a Cohen tribute album, which merged the sacred and secular version of Cohen’s song with some deletions.

It took over a decade, but the song evolved into a standard covered by hundreds of artists. The most popular versions after Buckley would be the faster-paced cover by Rufus Wainwright and kd Lang’s version, which draws upon her impressive vocal range and leaves out one of the alternate verses. Lang’s is my friend Betty’s favorite take on the song, and kd was asked to sing it at the 2010 Winter Olympics:

I was prompted to write about this song by the new book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, which I’d heard about it on NPR and read about in an article in the Tulsa World. Author Alan Light’s favorite version is Cohen’s live performance at the Coachella Music Festival in 2009.

Cohen's masterpiece?

Cohen’s masterpiece?

But what makes this song so powerful? Let’s walk through the seven verses of both of Cohen’s versions of it, looking at some possible interpretations of the lyrics:


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 song begins with a self-reference to its own composition. As noted at 3intheam.com, “The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift” references how the song shifts from C major to F major to G major to A minor and then to F major. The harmonic device of transitioning from minor to major at the end of a musical section is the Picardy third, and often used in hymns.

David is King David of Psalms, whose talent on the lyre rid Saul of the evil spirit. The “secret chord” can refer to the power of David’s playing of the lyre, but it can also be taken as a reference to how the lyre in King David’s time had no minor chords in its pentatonical tuning. But lest we err too much on the side of solemn analysis, note how the verse also undercuts its own seriousness with the Allenesque line, “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Already we can see how we are in the hands of a very intelligent songmaster.

But the first two verses are dominated by allusions to two Biblical tales of adultery, betrayal, and death: King David and Bathsheba as well as Samson and Delilah. Like some of U2’s most powerful songs, Cohen’s religious references blend the sacred and the secular to tap into ancient symbols about the powers and perils of love. One of the greatest things about Cohen songs is how he, like the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, blends the profound and the profane.


Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in 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

Some might wonder how this song, which includes veiled references to bondage and orgasm, would find its way into church worship services and public memorials. They would do well to recall how King David of Psalms, named in the first verse, is portrayed in the Bible. David seduced and committed adultery with Bathsheba, impregnated her, and then ordered her husband to leave a battlefield engagement to sleep with her so as to disguise that David was the father. When Bathsheba’s husband refused to leave his companions on the field of battle, David ordered that he be abandoned to die at the enemy’s hands. The first verse refers to David’s talent on the lyre, while the second mentions how, while walking on the roof of the king’s house, David first glimpsed Bathsheba while she was bathing.

The second verse not only references David, but blends in the story of Samson and Delilah. For those unfamiliar with this tale of a Jewish demi-god, Samson was given supernatural strength to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. In this story the tables are turned by a woman, Delilah, who seduces Samson. She learns the secret of his God-given strength: his uncut hair. She has him shaven while sleeping on her knees, leading to him being captured, blinded, and enslaved by the Philistines. Later, after his hair grew out, his vengeance was to destroy their temple from within, destroying them yet ending his own life in the process.

A great article by Michael Welch points out, “When taken as a whole, the second verse addresses, in order, longing (‘Your faith was strong but you needed proof’), temptation (‘You saw her bathing on the roof’), lust (‘Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you’), foreplay (‘She tied you to a kitchen chair’), sex (‘She broke your throne, she cut your hair’), and finally, climax (‘And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’).”


Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

These are drawn from an alternate secularized version of Hallelujah, where Cohen replaced the Old Testament references with these more embittered and sexualized lyrics. The love he sings of is not a victorious one, but one mired in defeat. The relationship has grown distant from its earlier shared moments of true openness and intimacy. Here he explicitly expresses religious doubt, and the cries of passion, be it sexual or religious, have been replaced by satisfaction at taking vengeance, or perhaps only attempting it, upon someone who hurt you in love, having learned “how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.”


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

This verse addresses how the word “Hallelujah is a command to “Praise Jehovah, you people”, invoking the name of the JudeoChristian God, which one is forbidden to take in vain (use outside of the context of its religious significance) in the Ten Commandments. In the context of the extended Buckley version of the song, we could think of how “Hallelujah” might be used in an expression of orgasm or vengeance, a broken cry that still carries power. But in the original version of the song, we harken to David’s enunciation, which should be in praise of his Lord, the holy Hallelujah, but he used profanely in orgasm. Another interpretation is that David’s “broken Hallelujah” would be his plea upon his recognition of his grievous sins.


I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried 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

The song ends with this acknowledgment. In the context of King David, he recognizes his sins with Bathsheba and confesses them to Jehovah, praising what he hopes will be a merciful God. In the secular context, the lovers are no longer truly in love, only seeking sexual satisfaction, and there is still celebratory joy in that.

Cohen has been called “the poet laureate of pessimism” and “the godfather of gloom.” But he doesn’t agree that his songs are all dark, especially Hallelujah. “It’s a rather joyous song,” Cohen said when the song was first released on the Various Positions album.  “I like very much the last verse – ‘And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!'”

The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light

The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light

The key message I take from the song is what Alan Light calls, “the value, even the necessity of the song of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread.” He adds, “Like our forefathers, and the Bible heroes who formed the foundation of Western ethics and principles, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain. But Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism. Critics may have fixated on the gloom and doom of his lyrics, but this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.”

If you are intrigued by the story of Hallelujah, and also want to learn more about Leonard Cohen, the man who said he couldn’t sing or play yet became one of the greatest songwriters of our time, who spent five years in seclusion and became an ordained Buddhist monk, who was bilked out of his fortune and nearly bankrupted, and who followed up a 15 year hiatus from touring by performing hundreds of concerts while in his 70s, purchase and enjoy a copy of The Holy or the Broken.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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1 Response to Hallelujah for and by Leonard Cohen

  1. Kate says:

    I love Jeff Buckley so much. The vid is really nice!

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