Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – The Fun Facts


It’s Everywhere

This morning,  A Thousand Covers Deep,  the database of covers of Leonard Cohen songs at LeonardCohenFiles.com, contained 181 versions of Hallelujah. For the record, Suzanne is still (barely) the most covered Leonard Cohen song, with 185 versions listed at  A Thousand Covers Deep.

Of those 181 versions,  Willie Nelson provides The Heck Of A Guy  Hallelujah cover du jour.1  This version is neither especially obscure or well-known and lacks the intensity of, say, kd lang’s or Allison Crowe’s, but I have a fondness for Willie and, after the X-Factor stylings of the song, it is a pleasure to listen to a professional rendering of Hallelujah.

Willie Nelson – Hallelujah

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My Old Kentucky Blog has collected a chorus2 of the Hallelujah covers and made them available for downloading.

The BBC News offers an audio quiz on the Hallelujah covers at Do you know your Hallelujahs?

Wikipedia’s incomplete  list of movies and TV shows featuring Hallelujah follows:

Basquiat, The Edukators (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei), Shrek (covered by John Cale in the movie and by Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack), St. Ralph, Deliver Us from Evil, Kissed by Winter, Feast of Love, Barfuss, Lord of War, When Night is Falling and TV series such as Holby City, House, Falcon Beach, The L Word, The O.C. (twice by Jeff Buckley, once by Imogen Heap), Hollyoaks, The West Wing, Without a Trace, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, ER, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Crossing Jordan, Drama and Nicole, Rescue Me, LAX, Roswell, Ugly Betty, Numb3rs, Scrubs, Mum, Heroin and Me, Friends, Nearly Famous and One Tree Hill.

In an editorial context, the song has been used in the Third Watch and Without a Trace episodes dealing with the 9/11 events. “Hallelujah” was played at the closing of NBC’s Dateline on April 17, 2007, covering the Virginia Tech massacre. During the playing of the song, a montage of photographs regarding the events of the tragedy was displayed. Additionally, Cale’s cover was used for the closing of the Stuff, a short film about John Frusciante in 1994 by Johnny Depp and Gibby Haynes. After the shooting massacre at NIU, the song was covered during a montage of YouTube users’ responses to the massacre. The song, as covered by Christina Marie, could be heard at the end of the montage on Fox News Tonight with Shepherd Smith. On the September 29, 2008 broadcast of Late Show with David Letterman, the song (performed by Rufus Wainwright) was played over a farewell montage for actor Paul Newman, who had died three days earlier.

The most significant response to the publicity and sales garnered by the X-Factor use of Hallelujah has been from fans of the 1994  Jeff Buckley version:

Buckley’s version of Cohen’s song is sitting at #43 on the U.K. singles chart because, according to NME.com, Buckley fans have been buying it in protest of the X Factor releases. A Facebook group has even been set up to encourage Buckley’s fans to buy his version of “Hallelujah” and send it to #1 over the X Factor contestants’ covers.3

Speaking of Jeff Buckley, Rolling Stone reports that

During his famed early gigs at the New York club Sin-e, Buckley … called it [Hallelujah] an homage to “the hallelujah of the orgasm” and had misgivings about his sensuous rendition: “I hope Leonard doesn’t hear it.”

Still speaking of Jeff Buckley, there are several versions (covers?) of jokes on the net that have to do with the X-Factor renditions of Hallelujah causing Jeff Buckley, who drowned in 1997,  to turn over in his grave as a proxy for the still-living and, therefore one assumes, grave-free Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen’s Record Label Must Have Really Promoted Hallelujah For It To Be So Popular

As it turns out, Columbia refused to release it, let alone promote it. On the other hand, the Columbia exec did contribute a telling quote (see bold portion in excerpt below):

Wikipedia explains,

Cohen’s label Columbia Records refused to release Various Positions in the United States. Walter Yetnikoff, president of the company, called him to his office in New York and said, “Look, Leonard; we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good4  It was subsequently picked up by the independent label Passport Records. The album was finally included in the catalogue in 1990 when Columbia released the Cohen discography on compact disc. A remastered CD was issued in 1995. [my emphasis]

What Does It All Mean?

Let’s start with a couple of quotes from the writer:

Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means “Glory to the Lord.” The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say: “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value.” It’s, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion. Leonard Cohen5

Here there is an ironic and warm “feeling.” I wanted to get into this tradition of the composers who said “Hallelujah,” but with no precisely religious point of view. And then I realize there is a “Hallelujah” more general that we speak to the world, to life… It’s a rather joyous song. I like very much the last verse. I remember singin’ it to Bob Dylan after his last concert in Paris. The morning after, I was having coffee with him and we traded lyrics. Dylan especially liked this last verse, “And even though it all went wrong, I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen6

Long, dense explications of Hallelujah on the Internet may well outnumber the covers of that song. For a serious but not ostentatious or pseudo-scholarly consideration of Hallelujah, I suggest Hallelujah!, a London Times article by Bryan Appleyard. This piece, which examines Hallelujah’s content vis-à-vis its popularity in movie and TV soundtracks,  is succinct, accessible, and insightful, albeit not groundbreaking. An excerpt follows:

What then became really odd about the song was the utterly contradictory way in which it was used and understood. This was, in part, due to the fact that Cohen seems to have written at least two versions. The first ended on a relatively upbeat note:

“And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah!” It was this ending, curiously, that Dylan especially liked, as he told Cohen over coffee after a concert in Paris. Cohen sang him the last verse, saying it was “a rather joyous song”. (Incidentally, during the same conversation, Cohen told Dylan that Hallelujah had taken a year to write. This startled Dylan. He pointed out that his average writing time was about 15 minutes.) Anyway, for once, Dylan’s taste had led him astray, because the bleaker ending in the Buckley version is much better, in the sense that it is more consistent. There is no redemptive Lord of Song, the only lesson of love is “how to shoot at someone who outdrew you” and the only hallelujah is “cold and broken”.

Encouraged by this apparently official duality, subsequent covers tinkered here and there with the words to the point where the song became protean, a set of possibilities rather than a fixed text. But only two possibilities predominated: either this was a wistful, ultimately feelgood song or it was an icy, bitter commentary on the futility of human relations.

Is There Any Other Bob Dylan Angle?

Well, as a matter of fact, there is this story Cohen tells:7

That [Hallelujah] was a song that took me a long time to write. Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years.

Then I praised a song of his, “I and I,” and asked him how long it had taken and he said, “Fifteen minutes.” [Laughter]

Why Did It Take Two Years To Write 4 Or 5 Verses?

As you may have heard, sometimes “it don’t come easy.”  Cohen wrote at least 80 verses to get it right, an effort that he recounts this way:

I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’8

John Cale, whose cover of Hallelujah has been  used on Scrubs and in Shrek, reports that after deciding to sing his own version of Hallelujah in a tribute album, …

I called and asked him [Cohen]  to send the lyrics.  I had one of those old fax machines. I went out to dinner and my floor was covered in paper. There were 15 verses of this song. I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses.9

Show Me The Money

Sorry, the best I can do is show you how much money might be involved and what the news stories report about the money, but where the money ends up is one of those timeless mysteries.

From Music Downloads Have Got The X Factor and several other sources, we learn

This year’s X Factor winner Alexandra Burke has had the fastest selling download single ever in Europe this week. Her debut single, a cover of the Leonard Cohen classic ‘Hallelujah’, was released at midnight on Saturday, just 2 hours after she was crowned the winner of the show. It sold 105,000 copies on the first day of release, smashing the previous record set by the 2006 X Factor winner Leona Lewis, who sold 82,000 copies of her debut ‘A Moment Like This’.

Remember the bits about Jeff Buckley? Well, according to Hallelujah Set For Chart Trinity,

Jeff Buckley’s version of the song Hallelujah is set to shoot up the singles chart after X Factor winner Alexandra Burke released her own cover. According to midweek sales Buckley’s version, from the 1994 album Grace, is set to be number three, but Burke’s single will debut at number one.Burke, 20, has already broken the record for the fastest-selling download single in Europe.The original Leonard Cohen version of the song is currently at number 34.

If Buckley’s cover climbs any higher, this could mean two versions of the same song sitting at number one and number two in the Christmas charts. … Burke, who was crowned the X Factor winner on Saturday, has shifted 149,546 copies of her single so far this week. … However, fans of Buckley – who died in 1997 at the age of 30 – have united online in various groups and forums in a bid to get their icon to number one this Christmas.

There are 5-10 stories in different publications that are mirrors of Leonard Cohen To Net A Million?

Leonard Cohen could become £1 million (about $1.9 million Canadian) richer before the new year.

The Canadian singer, songwriter and poet is set to collect £1 million in royalties from the U.K.’s X Factor television show because the Canadian Idol-like program’s three finalists — Alexandra Burke, Eoghan Quigg and boy band JLS — have recorded their own versions of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as a single. One of them is expected to hit the top spot on the U.K. singles chart over Christmas, which means it could sell a million copies and downloads.

I had planned, in fact, to devote an entire post to this story. It was demoted to this afterthought of a paragraph when, after a batch of Internet searches, e-mails, and phone calls, the only confident conclusion I could generate, other than muttered scatological asides about sloppy reporting, was “Huh?” None of the million pound stories I found provided attribution. None even explained if the one million pounds was the result of a deal with the X-Factor show, royalties from CD sales, or, for that matter, hedge fund investments. None addressed the fact that Leonard Cohen had sold part but not all of his rights to Hallelujah. None mentioned that the record label might not pass along 100% of the funds to the artist. A partial exception is the Times story, Leonard Cohen makes it big from X Factor, which has it this way:

It is expected that Burke’s cover version – already the most downloaded X Factor single ever – will sell a million CDs and downloads. Based on the usual 10 per cent royalty, this will make 74-year-old Cohen £250,000 while, according to a leaked X Factor contract, Burke will receive only £150,000 of her £1m prize contract, the rest going on recording costs, videos and promotion. (There are, of course, other bonuses: the makers of the Mini have already given her a pink one as a gift.)

At least this article offers some rationale for the calculations even if the other need facts (e.g,, how the “usual 10% royalty” is divided between artist and record company) are missing.

For comparison, consider TV Scene Stealer Is New Star Of Itunes Generation, a March 14, 2008 Boston Globe article by Geoff Edgers, which backs up its assertion that “the rights to use a big song like ‘Hallelujah’ can cost as much as $40,000″ by attributing that estimate to Alyson Vidoli, “music coordinator for GO Music Services, which finds music for House, Dexter, and several other shows.”

Isn’t All This Play Going To Lessen The Significance Of Hallelujah?

I agree with Amanda Palmer of the The Dresden Dolls, one of my favorite groups, on this:

If you were to tell me that playing this song [Hallelujah] as a cover is totally cliche, I’d tell you so is breathing.10

  1. To Duke Of Derm: “Your faith was strong but you needed proof.” []
  2. On the Heck Of A Guy Blog, a group of Hallelujah covers is known as a chorus.” []
  3. Leonard Cohen To Net A Million? by Kate Harper.  CHARTattack  12/15/08 []
  4. Cohen, quoting Yetnikoff, in “Yakety Yak, 1994″ []
  5. Guitare et Claviers interview, 1985 []
  6. Paroles et Musiques interview, 1985 []
  7. Leonard Cohen From Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo Los Angeles 1992 []
  8. Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah!, Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick, June 14, 2008 []
  9. ‘Hallelujah’ emerges as life’s soundtrack by Geoff Edgers, New York Times News Service (published in Orlando Sentinel, March 20, 2008) []
  10. TV Scene Stealer Is New Star Of Itunes Generation,, by Geoff Edgers. Boston Globe March 14, 2008 []

0 responses to “Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – The Fun Facts

  1. Hey, what a delicious heck of a guy you are! This is from a ardent Cohenite; I am a Bengali from Kolkata, India. Welcome to my feed reader.
    I loved your exchanges with Anjani; hope there are scarce celebrities with such affection to fans :)