Why it resonates so strongly.
That haunting melody. That simple chord progression. That powerful word. The legacy of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen lives on and on. And of course, the Christmas Version will undoubtedly be covered countless times in the next couple weeks in our churches.
From a CCLI standpoint, Leonard Cohen’s original version of the song is registered with us. It’s #5516144. I can’t really comment on the copyright legality of the Christmas version, because I don’t know if permission was sought or granted for the adaptation of the verses. But maybe it’s academic, because the “Hallelujah” verses seem like a total free-for-all anyway. Leonard Cohen himself apparently wrote as many as 80 draft verses, before slicing them down to four for the original version. And many verses are mixed-and-matched in the over-300 known cover versions of the song, so who can possibly keep track? (If you’re interested, Newsweek has ranked the top 60 cover versions.)
But what about those verses? Those very odd verses? There are numerous Biblical references, strange as they may be. King David. Bathsheba. Samson. Delilah. And there are hundreds of interpretations of the verses, from the very sacred to the very carnal. In a way, the mish-mash of “Hallelujah” verses seems entirely fitting, and an ironic reflection of the human condition itself. Out of the messy humanness of life, one true chorus rises. Hallelujah.
To get a deeper appreciation, let’s take a look at the history of the song itself. Leonard Cohen is an interesting guy. And the song story is fascinating.
In a book called The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light, the song finds its way from what an Atlantic Magazine article describes as “a cheesy reverb-heavy B-side oddity on an album Cohen’s label rejected to a mystical, soul-stirring pop canticle that’s played today at just as many weddings as funerals.”
John Lissauer, the producer of Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions, said that “Hallelujah” “was gonna be the breakthrough… [it] just jumped out at you.” But CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff scoffed, “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”
Cohen himself reflected, “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.’” And true-to-form, the many cover versions seem just as messy and tangled—from Jeff Buckley to Bono’s 1995 trip-hop version to a poignant scene in the 2001 movie, Shrek.
So is it a worship song? Clearly, those verses don’t really fit into “our” genre. But let me also ask… what happens deep in your heart and soul when you sing that chorus?
In Luke 9:49, John says, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”
So, back to the question… what do we do with “Hallelujah”? What else can we do, but just sing it. Say it. Breathe it. Let it be our heart cry. Especially in this season—messy and tangled as the world is right now—still we celebrate the newborn God-With-Us. Hallelujah.