The Trial, Belief, and Tragedy Behind “Hallelujah”

The song, “Hallelujah.” We’ve all heard it. Actually, whether we know it or not, we’ve all heard it many times, covered by numerous people, in dozens of different places. In fact, “Hallelujah” has been covered over 300 times, in various languages, and can be heard in stores, on the radio, in film, or on television to this very day. It’s allure and history has been the subject of a BBC documentary and a book.

Imagine that. An entire book about one song. 

For me, “Hallelujah” has always had a chilling and raw essence to it. No matter the version. It makes me feel instantly vulnerable yet calmed, and now, knowing it’s full story, I understand why. 

“Hallelujah” was written by Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist, Leonard Cohen. It was not a happy accident, nor did it come to him in a dream. This song was a labor of love (and hate), taking Cohen five years to “complete.” Cohen has since confessed to writing and re-writing over 50 versus for the song, recognizing it’s potential but always fearing he had not yet gotten it to the place it could (and was meant to) be.  

In 1984, Cohen finally presented the song to CBS Records Executive, Walter Yetnikoff (the man known for guiding the careers of Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others) and it was rejected, passed on.

The original recorded version of “Hallelujah” was released on the independent label, Passport Records, on Cohen’s album entitled, Various Positions, receiving very little attention or praise.

Despite this anticlimactic release, Cohen did not give up on his song. 

He revisited “Hallelujah” many times, making it longer, changing up versus, slowing it down, and stripping it back. It was throughout this time of reconstruction that John Cale, of Velvet Underground fame, heard Cohen performing the song live. 

Instantly struck by the uniqueness and captivating quality of “Hallelujah,” Cale expressed to Cohen that he wished to do a version of his song and asked for a copy of the lyrics. 

Cohen faxed Cale fifteen pages of versus.   

Clearly determined, Cale sifted through the many versus and versions Cohen had of “Hallelujah.” In the end, he kept some of the bits from Cohen’s live performance but altered the theme, calling back to the biblical references Cohen wrote for the album version of the song. 

Cale discovered and revealed the potential of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” 

John Cale’s “Hallelujah” sounds like the popular music version we have all come to instantaneously recognize, forever know, and unabashedly love. 

This version was released in 1991 on Cale’s album, I’m Your Fan

Despite it’s already lengthy evolution and eventual success, this version of “Hallelujah” still did not receive the attention it was destined for. It did, however, get purchased by a Brooklyn woman named Jeannine, who had a young musician often house sit her apartment while she was away. 

This young musician was named Jeff Buckley.  

Buckley found and listened to the I’m Your Fan CD at Jeannine’s home and decided to do his own version of “Hallelujah.” Following Cale’s lead, Buckley’s rendition kept the core of the song largely the same, but swapped out the piano for his guitar and dressed the emotive lyrics with his hauntingly ethereal voice.  

He performed his rendition of the resilient and determined song at a club in the East Village, unknowingly playing it for a Columbia Records Executive in the audience. Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” got him instantaneously signed and his version of this eternal song recorded. 

In 1994, Buckley’s one and only studio album, Grace, was released and included his “Hallelujah.” Yet, as we have continuously seen with this song, it did not achieve immediate mass success. 

In 1997, a 30-year-old Jeff Buckley was in Memphis, Tennessee, resuming work on his next album, and decided to go for a fateful evening swim in the Mississippi River.

After his tragic and untimely passing, Buckley’s music was explored, enjoyed, revered, and thrust into the spotlight. 

It was then, after an immense tragedy and over 15 years of being overlooked, that “Hallelujah” finally began garnering the attention and praise Leonard Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley knew it deserved. 

“Complex” may be one word to describe the journey “Hallelujah” had to fame and notoriety. Another may be “destiny.” This is not a song that bounced to number one in a week’s time, nor was it a single person’s creation or effort. It’s not a song simply about the lyrics, it’s not a song about the intricate melody. 

It’s a song that through trial, belief, and tragedy impacted and continues to influence those who hear it in a way that was always meant to be. Destined, if you will.  

–Victoria Shaffer

Sources:

Mallenbaum, Carly. “Why It Took 15 Years for Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to Get Famous.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 11 Nov. 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/music/2016/11/11/leonard-cohen-hallelujah-jeff-buckley/93632656/.

Staff, Albumism. “WATCH: The Making of Jeff Buckley’s Debut Album ‘Grace’ [Documentary].” Albumism, Albumism, 16 Oct. 2016, http://www.albumism.com/videos/the-making-of-jeff-buckley-grace-documentary.

Podcast: Revisionist History – “Hallelujah”

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