For many, Hallelujah is the song that is most associated with Canadian singer songwriter Leonard Cohen. There is even a documentary about the song (Hallelujah, 2022). The contemporary acclaim for Cohen’s song stands in contrast to its initial reception, when it was included on his 1984 LP Various Positions, which was rejected by Columbia Records.
Cohen released Various Positions on an independent label, but neither the album nor Hallelujah garnered much attention. With the benefit of hindsight, this seems ridiculous. The video below is an intense performance of the song by Leonard Cohen in London. The video is undated but it is undoubtedly July 17, 2008, at the O2 Arena.
It really is a special reading of the song. If anything, Cohen’s age-weathered voice enhances the meaning of the song, which deals with the dichotomy between earthly desires and the quest for redemption. If Cohen’s voice is somewhat worn, his poetic diction is impeccable, and he has three backing singers to help with the high notes. It is an important song performed with gravitas. Interestingly, Cohen only toured in 2008 as Kelley Lynch, his manager, had swindled him of his retirement savings
Apparently, Leonard Cohen took five years to write Hallelujah and the lyrics went through many versions. Cohen performed the original LP version on tour dates during 1985, but thereafter he tended to adapt the lyric at will. The first version of the song to gather traction was the recording John Cale made for the excellent Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m your Fan (1991). Cale used a combination of the LP lyrics and Cohen’s live adaptions, and these lyrics tend to be used in later covers.
The John Cale version of Hallelujah, above, is from Fragments of a Rainy Season, his 1992 live solo album, which gave the song even more of a boost than the version on I’m Your Fan. Thereafter the song was famously covered by Jeff Buckley, and the rest is history.
Hallelujah has become a much covered song and it has appeared in numerous movies and TV shows. In a 2009 interview on CBC Radio, Leonard Cohen half jokingly suggested that Hallelujah would benefit from less exposure. He said, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.” In a 2012 interview Cohen indicated that he had found peace with the many and various versions of his song. “I’m happy that it is being sung”, he said.
Hallelujah means “Praise God”, in Hebrew. Leonard Cohen was not particularly religious, but said that Hallelujah is a word that has been sung for thousands of years “to affirm our little journey”.
Cohen died of leukaemia on November 7, 2016, aged 82. His song Hallelujah lives on. Here is a recent Yiddish version by an opera singer (Sara Hershkowitz) with a side-project singing country influenced songs (as Sara Shiloh Rae):