The Meaning and History of the Song "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen

Updated on April 12, 2018
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Long time writer and researcher of topics such as theology, culture, history, and politics.

Leonard Cohen in 2010
Leonard Cohen in 2010 | Source

It’s a song that many know, but few know much about. The meaning of "Hallelujah," a popular masterpiece of music, is perhaps best understood through its complex history.

This song has a long and fascinating story behind it–one that is marked by a tragedy eerily befitting this mournful masterpiece. It was an under-appreciated work of a poet/songwriter in the 80s, and became the iconic song of a legendary musician, who faced a tragic early death. Now it's one of the most covered songs of all time. It has been adapted, re-interpreted, and re-written countless times. Through its evolution and constant re-interpretation, the meaning and significance of "Hallelujah" has gained even more substance.

The Meaning of the Song "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen

In Hebrew, the word hallelujah means to rejoice in praising God. However, the numerous biblical references and religious symbols in Cohen's song lead not to spiritual heights, but to Cohen's secularism. It is a bitter lament about love and loss. Cohen, adept in scripture, simply taps the human condition described in the bible in order to provide counsel to the brokenhearted.

Through Cohen's imagery, including references to some of the most notorious women in the bible, we find that the word "hallelujah," can mean so much more than just its religious context. "Hallelujah," the song teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, of mourning, of regret, of catharsis, and reconciliation. Cohen's song tells a story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness—themes with a myriad of applications and dimensions.

Sexual Interpretation of the Song

The lyrics also allude to the rush of sexual orgasm. The brilliance of Cohen's poetry and lyrics is that nothing is ever just on thing. This lyrics are open-ended and leave room for multiple interpretations. We can find hints of sexuality in verses such as:

Well there was a time when you let me know

what's really going on below

but now you never show that to me do you

But remember when I moved in you

and the holy dove was moving too

and every breath we drew was hallelujah

"Below" could be in reference to his partner's sexual excitement. But, she seems to have grown cold and holds back her true feelings from him. Perhaps he is saddened because he feels that the relationship hay died. He felt deep intimacy and passion when he made love to her, but that well of intimacy has dried up. The sexual interpretation of Cohen's "Hallelujah" hinges on lines such as:

Remember when I moved in you

and the holy dove was moving too

and every breath we drew was hallelujah

Judaism in the Song "Hallelujah"

"Hallelujah" was originally composed by singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen and released in 1984. He was 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 are 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 sold well.

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. This is a journey that all peoples know well, but speaks volumes in Jewish History. Some have gone as far as to say that the song reflects both Cohen's struggles with faith and tests of faith inflicted upon the Jewish people. However, it's unknown whether or not this was intentional on Cohen's part. Most music theorists presume that the lyrics are meant to be more open-ended.

Leonard Cohen's Religious Imagery

  • Well I've heard there was a secret chord
    That David played and it pleased the Lord
  • The baffled king
  • You saw her bathing on the roof
    Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
    She tied you to her kitchen chair
    And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
  • The holy dove

The song, as Cohen wrote it, is rich with references to Jewish Scriptures, including references to King David and Samson's 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. Cohen's lyrics are haunting and filled with lamentation, especially when he sings:

But remember, when I moved in you

And the holy dove was moving too

And every breath, we drew was 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

Leonard Cohen on "Hallelujah"

How Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" Became Popular

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.

John Cale's Version

Before Jeff Buckley recorded his iconic version, John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame, heard Cohen's track while attending one of Cohen’s concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 1990 and was inspired. The song stayed in his mind, he didn’t decide to record it until Les Inrockuptibles asked him to contribute to I’m Your Fan. Cale’s version of the song immediately struck a chord and inspired a host of other artists to record their own versions.

Leonard Cohen and the Buckley Family

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 hardly have any contact with. Mary got married and the child (later Jeff Buckley) 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.

Jeff Buckley Playing "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen

Jeff Buckley's Cover of "Hallelujah"

Jeff Buckley was originally named Scotty, but 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. He always preformed 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 is.

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].

The Song Gained More Attention After Jeff Buckley's Cover

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.

Artist's Who Have Covered the Song "Hallelujah"

  • Rufus Wainwright
  • U2
  • Brandi Carlisle
  • Imogen Heap
  • Dresden Dolls
  • Susan Boyle
  • k.d. Lang
  • John Cale

These 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 child victims of the Sandy Hook massacre on The Voice.

John Cale's Version of "Hallelujah"

What Makes It Such a Great Song?

The significance of the song is as varied as the different covers that exist. Each musician gives it new substance. Perhaps we have Buckley to thank for this. His distinguished artistic mark brought the song to the point of its transcendence. It's one of Cohen's most brilliant works. The word "hallelujah," he 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. It's for this reason that the significance of Hallelujah isn't likely to wane anytime soon. In the wake of all the tragedies in this world, remember what Cohen sang:

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

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Nancy Heinz 3 weeks ago

        Absolutely Beautiful - Just so heart felt!

      • profile image

        Cindy Ann Savage 2 months ago

        What a wonderful and incredibly interesting article!! Salute to the creative mind behind such rare gems on today's world!

        Cindy Ann Savage

        Athens, Ga. USA

      • profile image

        Brian Cordell 8 months ago

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

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        Cillian Flood 16 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.

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