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Meaning Found in the History of the Song ‘Hallelujah’

Updated on September 9, 2016
Leonard Cohen in 2010
Leonard Cohen in 2010 | Source

Song, Meaning, and History

The meaning of ‘Hallelujah,’ a popular masterpiece of music, is perhaps best understood in its complex and interesting history. The song has evolved with its history – a history full of surprises, pain, comfort, death, and life.

It’s a song that many know but few know much about. Perhaps especially since it was featured on the hit movie Shrek, the song ‘Hallelujah’ and its arguably most well known verse ‘I heard there was a secret chord / that David played and it pleased the Lord / it goes like this the fourth the fifth / the minor lift and the major fall / the a baffled king composing hallelujah’ has become familiar to many. It has been covered by countless artists and featured in numerous movies and television shows.

This song has a long and fascinating story behind it – one that is even marked with tragedy eerily fitting for this mournful masterpiece. It was an underappreciated work of genius poet a poet/songwriter in the 80s, became the iconic song of a legendary musician who faced a tragic early death, and is now one of the most covered songs of all time and that has been adapted, re-interpreted, and re-written countless times. In its evolution and constant re-interpretation, the meaning and significance of ‘Hallelujah’ has developed and gained its substance.

Leonard Cohen

‘Hallelujah’ was originally composed by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and released in 1984. Still living, he is a musician from Canada, who is known for richly structured, soulful, poetic songs exploring the depths of despair, broken love, and politics — all of which often laced with religious imagery drawn from his Jewish background. ‘Hallelujah’ was released on the album Various Positions (’84). In a relatively recent interview (posted below) Cohen reminisces about being told that the album wasn’t good enough for an American market – and indeed it never really did terribly well.

The song as Cohen wrote it is rich with references to Jewish Scriptures, combining references to King David and Samson and their tragic romances. The song’s meaning is vague, and numerous interpretations have been garnered. It speaks of spoiled love and has a myriad of religious, romantic, and psychological dimensions. Its breathtaking beauty is unquestionable.

But remember, when I moved in you

And the holy dove was moving too

And every breath, we drew was Hallelujah

The song largely went unnoticed for many years. One exception was Bob Dylan who was purportedly taken with the song and would play it live on occasion. Still, it took nearly another decade before it garnered a large popular or critical audience.

As an odd ‘coincidence’ of fate, Cohen had a friend named Tim Buckley – a country/jazz/folk artist who had achieved some notoriety in the 60s and 70s. Tim fathered an illegitimate child with Mary Guibert who Buckley would never have hardly any contact with. Mary later married and the child was raised under the name Scotty Moorhead. Scotty would, like his father, become a musician. It was this man who would turn ‘Hallelujah’ into the iconic and celebrated piece of music that it is today.

Leonard Cohen on 'Hallelujah'

Jeff Buckley

Scotty would later take his biological father’s surname and became known as Jeff Buckley. From a young age, Jeff showed signs of a promising musician – one who would later be heralded a genius and would go on to eclipse his father in prominence.

From the beginning of his musical career, Jeff eluded labels with musical influences as broad as classic rock, folk, jazz, hardcore punk, and even Pakistani folk music. He had a distinct voice that, like the man, escapes categorization. His career began by playing in café’s in France and elsewhere, where he would do intimate shows covering artists such as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, French folk songs, and the India/Pakistani stylings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - all on a Les Paul electric guitar. To this day, few people play as Buckley did – performing on an electric guitar with the sensitivity of an acoustic folk ‘balladist’ and the precision of a classical harp player, couched in a symphonic, clean, electric glow as haunting as his voice.

Early in his career Buckley started playing Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and his unique musical disposition took the under-appreciated masterpiece and turned it into something of a legend. Recordings of his early live performances reveal a treatment of the song that is undeniably both haunting and beautiful. He would eventually record it on his debut album, Grace.

Sadly, Buckley would pass away just before the release of his second album – cutting short a career that had barely begun.

Buckley has been posthumously recognized as a musical genius and his cover of Cohen’s Hallelujah was soon considered a classic. In 2004 Rolling Stone declared Buckley’s cover one of the greatest songs ever recorded[1]. To this day his version is considered definitive and has served as the inspiration for countless other renditions.

Time magazine wrote the following about Buckley’s treatment of the song: "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” [2].

After Buckley

It still took several years before the song gained wide popularity. In the late 2000s, there was a sudden burst of interest in the song and by 2008 Buckley’s recording went beyond Platinum in sales. Its countless use in movies and television shows is impossible to list in any thorough manner.

Numerous other artists have covered the song; re-interpreting, adapting it and sometimes adding their own verses: Rufus Wainwright, U2, Brandi Carlisle, Imogen Heap, Dresden Dolls, Susan Boyle, k.d. Lang, are just a handful of the artists that have added their voices to the canvas. It has been used in funerals and weddings, in Christian worship and in the midst of tragedies. One of its most recent uses was its performance in a tribute to the children victims of the Sandy Hook massacre on The Voice (below).

"Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860 - depicts part of the story of King David and Bathsheba, one of the narratives that frames the song 'Hallelujah.'
"Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860 - depicts part of the story of King David and Bathsheba, one of the narratives that frames the song 'Hallelujah.' | Source

The song’s thematic content is oddly fitting for its history. The song’s constant refrain ‘hallelujah’ takes the listener through a journey of pain, joy, suffering, and celebration. The significance of the song is as various as the different covers that exist — with each musician giving it its own substance. Perhaps we have Buckley especially to thank for this with his distinguished artistic mark, always evading labels, that gave the song its transcendence. But it is also essentially the brilliant work of Cohen. The word ‘hallelujah,’ the song teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, of mourning, of regret, of catharsis, and reconciliation. The original song is the story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, and penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness — themes with a myriad of applications and dimensions. The song, reflecting the diverse substance of its own lyrics, has seen a lot of life. And death. Things that never go away — and for this reason, the significance of Hallelujah is likely to wane anytime soon.

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

Jeff Buckley playing 'Hallelujah'

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      Brian Cordell 2 months ago

      In second paragraph, there is an error in the lyrics. "Lift" and "Fifth" should be a part of the rhyme.

    • profile image

      Cillian Flood 9 months ago

      The default avatar for this post is wearing a Cohen hat. Is that coincidence or intentional? I don't know but I love it.