Arguably Buckley's most famous work, this was originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1984 on his album Various Positions. Cohen's rendition was released as a single in Spain and the Netherlands, but got little attention in the United States.
Jeff Buckley heard the song in the early '90s and began performing it at his shows in and around New York City. He included it on his 1994 debut album Grace, but the song didn't gain widespread attention until after Buckley's death in 1997, which sparked renewed interest in his work. Many artists took note of "Hallelujah" and recorded their own versions of the song. Many of these covers found their way into movies and TV shows, popularizing the song across a wide audience.
The song is about love which has soured and gone stale. Cohen used a lot of religious imagery, including references to some of the more notorious women in the bible. Here's some lyric analysis:
"You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you" - Bathsheba, who tempted the king to kill her husband so he could have her.
"She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair" - Delilah, who cut off Sampson's locks that held his superhuman strength.
"But remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too" - This could be a reference to the divine conception and Mary.
The lines referring to the immaculate conception can also be interpreted as having a sexual connotation: "And every breath we drew was hallelujah."
Leonard Cohen explained: "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 a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion." (thanks, Roderick - Qingdao, China)
Regarding the line, "The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift," to which the chords played are: F - G - Am - F:
It is clever the way that not only the chords line up in the lyrics and in the music, but also because the connotations themselves of "major" and "minor" add to the meaning of the song. The "fourth" is a major chord based on the fourth of the key Buckley is playing in. Likewise the fifth is the major chord based on the fifth tone of the key. The "Minor Fall" corresponds to Buckley playing a minor chord based on the sixth of the key. "Major Lift" corresponds to playing the major chord on the fourth again. (thanks, Gol - Gainesville, FL)
The Bible makes reference to King David communing with the Lord and learning that certain types of music were more pleasing. The chords mentioned in the lyrics (that "David played and it pleased the lord) are often used in hymns. (thanks, Mike - Perth, Australia)
Leonard Cohen recalls singing this song to Bob Dylan the morning after Dylan's concert in Paris on July 1, 1984. Cohen says they sat down at a café and traded lyrics, and that Dylan especially liked the last verse of the song (Cohen often tells the story of comparing songwriting technique with Dylan at this meetup: while "Hallelujah" took him years to write, Dylan told Cohen that he wrote "I and I" in 15 minutes).
Dylan would later perform the song, singing it at two shows in 1988.
The melody has become a favorite in churches across America, where instrumental versions are often played by organists and bell choirs. Musically, it fits right in with traditional hymns, but the lyrics, although filled with religious imagery (especially the title), are rarely appropriate in this setting, since it is definitely not a worship song.
You will sometimes hear versions of the song with the lyrics altered for church performance. One such rendition was recorded by The Osmonds in 2015. It begins: I heard about this baby boy
Who comes to Earth to bring us joy
And I just want to sing my song to ya
Larry Holder, the composer of "More Than a Child
" and other worship songs, gave us his thoughts on the subject. Said Holder: "While there is Biblical imagery, it is not a worship song, in the common understanding. The music by itself is very moving, so I can understand someone wanting to use it instrumentally, although to me, it would tend bring to mind the lyrics (in my case, I'd start thinking about Shrek
) which would actually be a distraction from worship.
It is interesting how someone came up with alternate lyrics for what the Osmonds sang, and that would definitely fit within a musical program at church at Christmas time in particular. (I have to presume permissions were obtained for such a derivative work to be written for such public use). I have heard that many of the hymns that Martin Luther penned actually used common melodies heard in the pubs of his day, so setting worship lyrics to secular melodies already well known has some logic to it.
There has been a lot of change in worship style, just in the past decade or so. I am a bass player in a praise band, in a church that not so many years ago was pretty much just choir, piano, organ (we actually have two services now, one traditional, one contemporary, which is not uncommon). It is easy to see how something contemporary but not purely originally worship music can become adapted and adopted into a contemporary worship setting. We sometimes walk a fine line between leading true worship and merely providing entertainment."
John Cale, who founded The Velvet Underground, recorded this song for the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and also included it on his 1992 solo album Fragments Of A Rainy Season. Jeff Buckley started covering the song after hearing Cale's version.
Cale shaped his own interpretation after Cohen faxed him 15 pages of lyrics for the song, claiming that he "went through and just picked out the cheeky verses." Cale's version also appears in the 1996 movie Basquiat and on its soundtrack.
Buckley always closed his live shows with this song. Remarkably, his revved-up crowds became extremely silent. (thanks, Kristy - La Porte City, IA)
Cohen started work on this song five years prior to recording it on his 1984 Various Positions album, by which time he had 80 verses to choose from - he picked the best four.
Rufus Wainwright recorded this for the 2001 movie Shrek. Wainwright did not sing on the version used in the film (John Cale did), but his version is on the soundtrack. Wainwright recorded for Dreamworks, which also distributed the movie, and he had an album coming out a few weeks after Shrek was released.
When the song appeared in Shrek, it was introduced to a very young audience, greatly expanding its appeal. (thanks, Andy - Indiana, PA)
Rufus Wainwright is the gay father of Leonard Cohen's granddaughter. Don't worry, we'll explain. Rufus is the son of the famous recording artist Loudon Wainwright III
and Kate McGarrigle. Loudon is a bit younger than Leonard but the two are spiritual twins in the unique folk-poetry they're both known for. Kate McGarrigle, originally from Quebec, has herself crafted brilliant work both before and after meeting and marrying Loudon. Kate gave birth to Rufus in 1973 and died from cancer in 2010. Still, before and after Kate's death the Wainwright family was and is very close with Leonard Cohen and his daughter, Lorca. The Cohens and Wainwrights are both nothing short of Canadian folk music royalty (Loudon is from the States but his marriage to Kate made him an honorary Canuck).
In 2011, Rufus had a child with Leonard's daughter and the little girl, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, is being raised by the trio of Lorca, Rufus, and Rufus' lover John Weisbrodt. You can call it an unconventional setup, but one thing is certain: Viva most definitely has a long history of Canadian folk talent coursing through her veins.
A stark, a cappella version of this song by Imogen Heap plays during the season finale of the show The O.C. in 2006, accompanying a scene where the character Marissa dies.
Other notable uses of this song on TV shows:
Without A Trace on the first season finale episode.
The Fox series House, where It was used on the second season premiere episode "Acceptance."
The final episode of the third season of The West Wing. The president and staff were attending an opera when CJ Craig's (Press Secretary) secret service guard (and new love interest) was gunned down trying to stop a robbery.
This plays at the end of the movie The Edukators (Die fetten jahre sind vorbei), which got the Award Of The Public in Cannes, 2004. The main characters by then lost some faith in humanity, start an open relationship and continue to fulfill their revolutionary dreams. (thanks, Chris - Wageningen, Netherlands)
This appears in the final minutes of the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord Of War. (thanks, Sandy Currin - lillington, NC)
In March 2008, Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice performed this song during Leonard Cohen's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Afterwards he told Billboard magazine what made this track so special for him. Rice said: "There's an amazing connection between sex and spirituality, and it's something Leonard Cohen hints at in that song. It's almost like a Buddhist master giving you a hint, but not the whole story. You have to take that hint and go sit with it."
On March 4, 2008, American Idol competitor Jason Castro performed this song to rave reviews by the judges. Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell both said that they considered the Jeff Buckley version the best. As a result, Buckley's "Hallelujah" hit #1 on Billboard's Digital Downloads chart the next week. In the UK the renewed interest in this song created by Jason Castro resulted in the song returning to the UK singles chart at #74. It also reached the Top 20 of the World Singles chart. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Singer/songwriter Kate Voegele covered this in episode 517 of the TV show One Tree Hill ("Hate Is Safer Than Love"). Such was the positive response to her version that its digital sales gave the singer/songwriter her biggest hit - it reached #68 in the US and #53 in the UK.
Buckley referred to his sensuous rendition as a homage to "the hallelujah of the orgasm." He explained in a Dutch magazine OOR: "Whoever listens carefully to 'Hallelujah' will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It's an ode to life and love." Buckley also admitted to having misgivings about his sensual version and he hoped that Cohen wouldn't get to hear his version.
In November 2008, this entered the UK Top 50 for the first time, thanks to the BBC's use of the track in a series of promotional trails for their iPlayer service.
The song is broadcast at 2 a.m. every Saturday morning by the Israeli Defense Force's radio channel.
This song was the debut single for Alexandra Burke, the 2008 winner of the UK X Factor
show. Her version broke the record for Europe's fastest-selling download and topped the UK chart. Its success prompted renewed interest in Jeff Buckley's rendition and as a consequence his version of Leonard Cohen's spiritual epic reached #2 just behind Alexandra Burke. It thus became the first song ever to hold down the top two slots on the chart simultaneously since Tommy Steele and Guy Mitchell's versions of Singing The Blues
were at #1 and #2 back in 1957.
It also prompted renewed interest in Leonard Cohen's original version. As a result the Canadian singer-songwriter got a look in on some chart action, gaining his very first UK Top 40 hit at the age of 74.
Justin Timberlake performed this song on the charity telethon, Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief, which was held on January 22, 2010. He was accompanied by his cast-mate from The Mickey Mouse Club, singer-songwriter Matt Morris, on guitar and vocals. Morris co-penned "(Another Song) All Over Again" on Timberlake's 2006 FutureSex/LoveSounds and his duet with Reba McEntire, "The Only Promise That Remains" on the Country singer's 2007 Reba: Duets LP. Morris also reunited with another of his mouseketeer co-stars contributing to five tracks from Christina Aguilera's Stripped album.
Timberlake told MTV News that when he was asked to perform on the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, he knew exactly what song he was going to perform. "It's always been one of my favorite songs," Timberlake said. "And my artist Matt, we always kinda sing that song when we're messing around in the studio with ideas. The way that it's written can be interpreted many different ways," he added. "But the emotion that comes through - the chords, the melody and also what's being said in the song - it just kind of fit for the telethon."
Timberlake's version marked the first time this song entered the Top 40 of the US singles chart. The only previous time "Hallelujah" reached the Hot 100 was in May 2008 when Kate Voegele spent one week at #68 with her cover. The Voice contestant Matthew Schuler subsequently reached #40 in 2013 after performing it on the reality television singing competition.
The Canadian singer kd lang recorded a version of this song on her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel. She has several times been chosen to sing the tune at major events, including the 2005 Juno Awards, the 2006 Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on the occasion of Cohen's induction into the Hall of Fame and as part of the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Bono recorded a spoken word, trip-hop version of this song in 1995 for the Leonard Cohen tribute album Tower Of Song. Bono later apologized for this, stating, "There's the holy and the broken hallelujah, and mine was definitely the broken one."
editor Alan Light penned in 2012 a book titled, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah
. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter
, he explained: "I attempt to explore the unprecedented path of this song - a protracted snowball effect that, over the course of several decades, has turned 'Hallelujah' into one of the most loved, most performed and most misunderstood compositions of all time."