Inside the Weird Journey of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'

Cohen's own version isn't the definitive one

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Dec 3, 2012 11:42 AM CST

(Newser) – Unlike most songs that reside in the sort of unofficial Cover Song Hall of Fame, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was released to not much fanfare at all in the Born in the USA glory days of 1984. In fact, it was on the only Cohen album his record company ever rejected, released instead on an independent label. But here's what happened since: Jeff Buckley very famously covered it (ditto the likes of Bob Dylan, Bono, kd lang, and Susan Boyle), and his version and those of others have made their way to the Shrek soundtrack, played on repeat on VH1 after 9/11, accompanied everything from the 2010 Olympics to the Haiti earthquake telethon, and appeared on TV shows like ER and the West Wing.

The song has become what the AP calls a "modern standard"—but Cohen's version is far from the definitive one, making its journey to greatness an unusual one, so much so that author Alan Light tomorrow releases The Holy or the Broken, a book that follows its path. While the song contains Biblical references, the AP notes that Cohen intended to give the word a nonreligious context (a sample, more risque lyric: "she tied you to a kitchen chair ... and from your lips she drew the hallelujah"). He also intended it to be a joyful song, though it's regularly played at funerals. Light himself first started pondering the song after seeing congregants crying after hearing it sung at Yom Kippur services in 2010: "At a time when everything has fragmented so dramatically, it's sort of heartening to see that this song can connect as universally as it did."

Leonard Cohen is photographed in Toronto in this Feb. 4, 2006, file photo.
Leonard Cohen is photographed in Toronto in this Feb. 4, 2006, file photo.   (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Aaron Harris, file)
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Leonard Cohen sings his song.   (YouTube)
Jeff Buckley's cover.   (YouTube)

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