Hallelujah is a Hebrew word meaning “Praise God”. The word was preserved, untranslated, by the Early Christians as a superlative expression of thanksgiving, joy, and triumph. “Hallelujah” is a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, originally released on his studio album “Various Positions” (1984). Achieving little initial success, the song found greater popular acclaim through a cover by John Cale, which later formed the basis for a cover by Jeff Buckley. In recent years several cover versions have been performed by a large number and broad range of artists, both in recordings and in concert: Jon Bon Jovi, Rufus Wainright and K.D. Lang, and many others. “Hallelujah”, in its original version, is a song in “12/8 feel”, which evokes the styles of both waltz and gospel music. Written in the key of C major, the chord progression follows the lyric “it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift”: C, F, G, A minor, F.
Cohen’s original version contains several biblical references, most notably evoking the stories of Samson and traitorous Delilah from the Book of Judges as well as the adulterous King David and Bathsheba: “she cut your hair” and “you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you”. Following his original 1984 studio-album version, Cohen performed the original song on his world tour in 1985, but live performances during his 1988 and 1993 tours almost invariably contained a quite different set of lyrics with only the last verse being common to the two versions. Numerous artists mix lyrics from both versions, and occasionally make direct lyric changes, such as Rufus Wainwright, a Canadian-American singer, substituting “holy dark” and Allison Crowe, a Canadian singer-songwriter, substituting “Holy Ghost” for “holy dove”.
Cohen’s lyrical poetry and his view that “many different hallelujahs exist” is reflected in wide-ranging covers with very different intents or tones of speech, allowing the song to be “melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous” depending on the performer: The Welsh singer-songwriter John Cale, the first person to record a cover version of the song in 1991, promoted a message of “soberness and sincerity” in contrast to Cohen’s dispassionate tone; The cover by Jeff Buckley, an American singer-songwriter, is more sorrowful and was described by Buckley as “a hallelujah to the orgasm”; Crowe interpreted the song as a “very sexual” composition that discussed relationships; Wainwright offered a “purifying and almost liturgical” interpretation to the song; and Guy Garvey of the British band Elbow anthropomorphised the hallelujah as a “stately creature” and incorporated his religious interpretation of the song into his band’s recordings.
See Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah video performance on YouTube:
HALLELUJAH, by Leonard Cohen
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
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
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 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 with 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
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
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