Blog March 8, 2024

Can We All Sing Hallelujah!

Can We All Sing Hallelujah!

“Hallelujah” is a song written by Canadian singer Leonard Cohen, originally released on his album Various Positions (1984). Achieving little initial success, the song found greater popular acclaim through a new version recorded by John Cale in 1991. Cale’s version inspired a 1994 recording by Jeff Buckley that in 2004 was ranked number 259 on Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Of course, it’s important to start the conversation about “Hallelujah” with its lyrics. Cohen, who is considered one of music’s greatest poets, writes expertly and exquisitely about the human condition, about love and sadness and remorse and hope in the track. It’s because of these themes that the song has since become timeless.

The song, which includes several obvious Biblical references, utilizes the single word, “Hallelujah,” as its chorus. It’s exultant but it’s also a song about the dark side of humanity and of our most cherished trait: love. Love, though desired and cherished, is not only blissful. As Cohen writes, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

The song achieved widespread popularity after Cale’s version of it was featured in the 2001 film Shrek. Many other arrangements have been performed in recordings and in concert, with more than 300 versions known as of 2008. The song has been used in film and television soundtracks and televised talent contests. “Hallelujah” experienced renewed interest following Cohen’s death in November 2016 and re-appeared on international singles charts, including entering the American Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.


Cohen is reputed to have written around 80  to as many as 180  draft verses for “Hallelujah”—a number affected by the accounting question that he had many versions of the same line. Cohen is said to have claimed 150 draft verses, a claim substantiated by his notebooks containing manifold revisions and additions, and by contemporary interviews. In a writing session in New York’s Royalton Hotel, Cohen is famously said to have been reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, filling notebooks, banging his head on the floor. Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, creators of the 2022 documentary film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, said that Cohen took about five years to write the song, and reconfigured it numerous times for performances.

Unlike some other songs that became anthems, “Hallelujah” initially was on an album that was rejected by Columbia Records, was largely ignored after an independent label released it, was not widely covered until John Cale’s 1991 version, and did not reach the Billboard charts until Cohen’s death in 2016. Reflecting on the song’s initial rejection, Cohen related that Columbia told him that “we know you are great, but don’t know if you are any good”.

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. Numerous singers mix lyrics from both versions, and occasionally make direct lyric changes; for example, in place of Cohen’s “holy dove”, Canadian-American singer Rufus Wainwright substituted “holy dark”, while Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe sang “holy ghost“.

Musical composition and lyrical interpretation

Hallelujah”, in its original version, is in 12/8 time, which evokes both early rock and roll and gospel music. Written in the key of C major, the chord progression of of C, F, G, A minor, F matches those referenced in the song’s famous first verse.

His original version, recorded on his 1984 album Various Positions, contains allusions to several biblical verses, including the stories of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges (“she cut your hair”) as well as King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”).

Cohen’s lyrical poetry and his view that “many different hallelujahs exist” is reflected in wide-ranging covers with very different intents or tones, 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; and Guy Garvey of the British band Elbow made the hallelujah a “stately creature” and incorporated his religious interpretation of the song into his band’s recordings. Noting its inclusion in the 2001 animated movie Shrek and performance in numerous singing competition reality shows, New York Times movie reviewer A. O. Scott wrote that “Hallelujah is one of those rare songs that survives its banalization with at least some of its sublimity intact”.

Canadian singer k.d. lang said in an interview shortly after Cohen’s death that she considered the song to be about “the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom. It’s being caught between those two places.” Former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page, who sang the song at Canadian politician Jack Layton’s funeral, described the song as being “about disappointing [other] people”.

The song was the subject of a 2012 book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’; author Alan Light said that Cohen’s “approach to language and craft feel unlike the work of anybody else. They sound rooted in poetry and literature because he studied as a poet and a novelist first.” The book served as the basis for the 2022 documentary film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song; the film’s co-creator said that Cohen “addressed the deepest of our human concerns about longing for connection and longing for some sort of hope, transcendence and acknowledgment of the difficulties of life.”

Financial Times arts and culture columnist Enuma Okoro wrote that “the lyrics and the tone of the song seem to sway between hymn and dirge, two musical forms that could serve as responses to almost everything that happens in our lives: songs that celebrate and acknowledge the blessings and provisions of our lives, and songs that bemoan our losses, our heartbreaks, and our deaths”.[24] Okoro noted that the word hallelujah is composed of two Hebrew words that mean “praise God”, adding that Cohen said people have been “singing it for thousands of years to affirm our little journey”.

Cohen references the stories of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges, singing, She cut your hair. He also talks about King David and Bathsheba: Now I heard there was a secret chord that David and it pleased the Lord and You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.

Often, he’s saying, when in a relationship, it can feel more like a competition, to win instead of to appreciate. This stanza warns against this common behavior in people. Do better, Cohen seems to say, even when it’s hard, dark, and cold.

Meaning of “Hallelujah”

      This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’

—Leonard Cohen[

Where songs come from

      Even Cohen, like the king in the song, was baffled by Hallelujah. He didn’t want to explain it and decided he probably couldn’t if he tried. He said: “If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often.”

Xan Brooks, The Guardian

I love Leonard Cohen.  Please, take time and give him a listen.