Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Remarkable Song's Ascent

It's about Biblical images of a shepherd King named David; it's a story of Samson and Delilah; it's a reflection on making love; it's a universal awareness that in the end there's nothing but standing before a Creator and singing.


Leonard Cohen wrote the original verses; John Cale sang the first variation; Jeff Buckley turned it into an anthem; Rufus Wainwright made it more playful; k d lang performed it at the Olympics and helped make it international.

It has been used for weddings, Yom Kippur services, movie and TV soundtracks and 9/11 reactions.


I just finished reading the book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" by Alan Light. It tells the now 30-year journey of what has become an iconic song. Light traces the composer, Cohen, through his career and how this song, barely noticed for the first ten years of its existence slowly rose to the stature it has today.

It is a remarkable song that has a life of its own thanks in part to Cohen's own openness to change. The melody is simple, haunting and unforgettable. The first time one hears it, you think you've heard it before. It builds on its own familiarity and pulls you in. Light examines the song, the various verses added to it, it's use in the movie Shrek, American Idol and as the instrument for a resurgence and appreciation for Leonard Cohen, who as Light points out does the simple and radical thing of rhyming "what's it to you?" or "come to fool you" with "Hallelujah."

In the end for many, it may be the closing stanza of Cohen's original lyrics that speak of an attitude and a spirituality that we all seek to live. It is a holy or broken


I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Here is the now wise elder Cohen singing at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2008.

Note: Go to You Tube and hear the other three remarkable interpretations by
John Cale
Jeff Buckley (life at Sin-e) and
Rufus Wainwright.
Each is unique and will bring out different emotions.

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