Leonard Cohen: “Hallelujah”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Last month during the same week that saw the U.S. presidential election, Canadian musician Leonard Cohen died at age 82. He was one of the great songwriters – a songwriter’s songwriter. The composer of such songs as “Suzanne,” Cohen was perhaps best known for his 1984 song “Hallelujah.”

Apparently, it took Cohen years to write “Hallelujah,” to the point where he was once so frustrated that he banged his head on the floor as he sat to write the song. Even after he recorded the song on the album Various Positions in 1984, his subsequent world tour found him altering the lyrics, sometimes considerably. “Hallelujah” was a song that would undergo many revisions, both by Cohen and by others.

The song did not really achieve breakthrough status until it was recorded by Jeff Buckley in 1994. Though Buckley did not have a hit with “Hallelujah” while he was alive, by 2004 it was so well known that it ranked number 259 on Rolling Stone‘s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Time magazine noted that Leonard Cohen “murmured the original like a dirge,” while “Buckley treated the . . . song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain.” “It’s one of the great songs,” Time concluded.

Musician John Legend said that Buckley’s version is “as near perfect as you can get. The lyrics to ‘Hallelujah’ are just incredible and the melody’s gorgeous and then there’s Jeff’s interpretation of it. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I’ve ever heard.”

So iconic is Buckley’s recording that the Library of Congress announced in 2014 that it will be inducted into the National Recording Registry.

Since Buckley’s recording ultimately catapulted the song to fame, it has been performed and recorded by numerous musicians and included in many film and television soundtracks, with over 300 known versions.

Most recently, the song enjoyed another interpretation by Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon, who played Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 campaign season. Four days after the presidential election, McKinnon – in character as Hillary Clinton – opened SNL with three verses from “Hallelujah.” Seemingly, Clinton was singing a requiem for her lost election as well as for the passing of the great Leonard Cohen. At the end of the performance, McKinnon turned to the camera and said, “I’m not giving up and neither should you.” I dare you to watch the clip and keep a dry eye.

The enigmatic song – which Cohen himself presented in multiple versions with different verses – has spawned a great variety of interpretations. Singer k.d. lang offers perhaps the most on-point analysis. In an interview after Cohen’s death, she said that the song is about “the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom. It’s being caught between those two places.”

Learn more about the history of the song in Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.”

Listen and Watch:Listen to Leonard Cohen sing “Hallelujah.” Watch the official video for Jeff Buckley’s recording of the song. Finally, take a few minutes to watch Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, sing several verses of “Hallelujah” as the opening to Saturday Night Live four days after the 2016 presidential election.


Image Credit: Leonard Cohen in 1988, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leonard_Cohen,_1988_01.jpg