Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Decoding Hallelujah

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Decoding Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” was at first a little-known cut on his 1988 album Various Positions. Since then, it has spread like a musical virus, now having been covered by over 200 artists, and gained the coveted Christmas Number One spot in the UK through the X-Factor's Alexandra Burke version. It's become for singers what Everest is for climbers -- everybody wants to attempt it. kd lang scaled this peak again at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies.

I’m sure, therefore, that you’ve heard the song, and probably even have a favourite version (mine are John Cale’s , the very first cover, and kd lang’s, but Jeff Buckley fans are adamant about his rendition). Cale, a charter member of the original Velvet Underground, edited what is now the most-heard version by selecting lines from 15 pages of lyrics that the author sent him. Cohen often sang different versions in performance, adding and dropping stanzas as the mood took him. Other versions have been issued by a good slice of rock music’s royalty from Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bono to Canadians Rufus Wainwright and Allison Crowe. Maybe you’ve come to agree with its creator that the song is ready for a “rest” from public airing.

Obviously, to achieve such popularity, it must have a strong melody, but what about its lyrics? My impression is that many who love the song don’t really register some of its darker and more mystical suggestions, focusing instead on the “Hallelujah” chorus as evidence that the song is a celebration of good things in life. Cohen – as anyone who has read his poetry or novels can attest – is never that simple.

Like many Cohen songs, “Hallelujah” mixes the Bible (the stories of David and Bathsheeba, and Samson and Delilah, are alluded to) with personal and erotic imagery (parts of the song refer to stages in a love relationship and differences between the partners -- "but you don't really care for music, do ya?"). There is a conceptual cleverness in the lines about how the song goes ("a fourth, a fifth, a minor fall, a major lift"), because they echo the chord sequence for those lines C-F-G-A minor-F). But what about the lines about Samson: (“She broke your throne, she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”) or what kind of oral praise this is (“And it is not somebody who has seen the light/ It's a cold and it is a broken Hallelujah”)? Why laud such moments of pain or vulnerability?

In lines widely quoted from another of his songs, “Anthem”, Cohen writes “Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in.” The crack and light imagery, as my friend Kenneth Sherman once pointed out in a review of Adele Wiseman’s novel Crackpot, is a reference to a passage written by the Kabbalist and philosopher Isaac Luria, about an event in the creation of the world: “the Vessel, unable to contain the Holy Radiance, burst and its shards, permeated with sparks of the Divine, scattered through the Universe.”

I think the spiritual depth that is so compelling in “Hallelujah” comes from this perception. Unlike the easy dialectic of sappy sentiments like “always look on the bright side” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, the crack and the Light are one and the same thing. The pain and imperfections of this world are just as worthy of praise as a new baby, a new love or a rainbow over a mountain. Love is not a victory march, but a willingness to stay with someone whatever happens. In the story of Job, which hallelujah would have meant more to his creator: the one uttered when he was experiencing prosperity and health, or the broken one uttered as he surveyed his boils?

If it is the role of poets and artists to express how it feels to be human in their particular times and physical selves, then Cohen with his usual honesty is telling listeners that we need to attend to everything that we experience, not mentally blanking out the harder lessons. Otherwise we will never learn from them, and we will keep being unable to reassemble our personal vessels of light in the time given to us. From being born, to making love, to dying, we have to work with our vessels, and all the cracks they carry.
“But remember when I moved in you,
And the Holy Ghost was moving too,
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah…”

6 comments

I think this quote reveals some of the mystery...
'Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self'
-Jean-Luc Godard

Yes, that's a very apposite quotation. Art uses symbols that speak to us on many levels, and one of them is affirming what we already knew or sensed.
John Oughton

Hi John!

A few weeks ago, I attended the Bat Mitzvah of the daughter of a friend. The event was held during the "Minchah" or afternoon service at "The Kiever," a historic synagogue in Toronto's downtown Kensington Market. The Bat Mitzvah girl, Niki Sos, was somehow permitted to read from the Torah, a rite of passage normally forbidden to women in the Orthodox sect of Judaism. After the prayer service, about hundred or so invitees headed downstairs for a late afternoon meal. By the time the meal was finished, the sun had set, and the Sabbath was officially over. At this point, a group of Niki's friends and family, brought out microphones, guitars, drums, a bass, and a mandolin, for a fantastic jam session. And they began by leading our entire crowd in a poignant version of Cohen's Hallelujah!!!

I have heard the song a hundred times or more. By many different singers. I never tire of it. But I have also never taken the time to try to figure out what it means. I just felt that, in some part of my soul, I knew what the song meant without being able to articulate it.

Thanks John for articulating for me what I have felt in my soul!

Karen

Thanks for the story, Karen. It's a sign of a song's worth and complexity when it gets under our skin like that ... some of Joni Mitchell's songs have the same effect on me.
John Oughton

There is no rest when lines like that stick in our heads. We have to do something with them...
John Oughton

I vote for the original version of "Hallelujah," followed by the Rufus Wainwright cover, John, and no "rest" from lines like these: "There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page