By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood
To begin, and to avoid us getting rather mixed up, there are two Hallelujah songs. One written by Leonard Cohen and one written by Bob Dylan. This article concerns the Leonard Cohen piece. The Dylan song is one of those pesky tracks that somehow we seem to have missed, despite all the grand claims I make on the site of reviewing every Dylan song. A review of Dylan’s composition, complete with lyrics will be the next post on this site.
Dylan wrote his song in 1981 four years before Leonard Cohen wrote his song. I wonder if there was ever a conversation between the two songwriters in which Dylan told Cohen he’d got a song called Hallelujah which wasn’t working very well, and Cohen then wrote his version.
That last bit is of course supposition, but what we do know is that Bob performed the Cohen version in 1988 whilst it was still a relatively obscure track, a few years before John Cale, Shrek, Jeff Buckley and a hundred other versions were recorded or performed.
It is also a song that has the associated story. Bob Dylan asked Leonard Cohen how long it took to write Hallelujah. The answer came back “two years”.
Cohen then came back to Bob and said, “I really like ‘I and I.’ How long did it take you write that?”
Dylan told him it was done and dusted in 15 minutes
David Remnick in his profile of Leonard Cohen in the New Yorker, points out however that it actually took Cohen five years to write “Hallelujah,” and when it was done, his label didn’t even want to release the album it appeared on because it didn’t seem commercial. The Wiki article on the song says that Cohen wrote around 80 verses for Hallelujah, before it was condensed down to the final version.
But here’s a thought – if the five years is true, what this means is that both Dylan and Cohen were writing a song called Hallelujah at the same time. Could be a coincidence of course. Or maybe they did have a chat. “What you working on Leonard?” “A song called Hallelujah. What about you?” “Trying to find some songs for the next album. Hallelujah you say? I could give it a go.”
Here’s Bob’s version of Cohen’s work
And here is a live version by the composer…
As noted however, the song found greater popular acclaim through a recording by John Cale, which inspired a recording by Jeff Buckley.
Here is John Cale
Apparently over 300 versions have now been recorded, and it has been used in film and TV as well. Here, to end the video selection is Jeff Buckley
One interesting link between Cohen and Dylan is that both composers change the lyrics of their songs. The Cohen shows on the 1988 tour and the 1993 tour particularly varied the lyrics, and since then other performers have taken bits from different versions.
As for the lyrics of Dylan’s own song – well the lyrics are the reason my review of the song hasn’t appeared as yet. I can’t understand a word.
I suppose the strength of the Cohen piece is that it can be reinvented so many ways to be joyful or sorrowful, according to how the singer wants to interpret the song. Wiki, in its review, calls Cohen’s version dispassionate, Cale’s sober and sincere, and Buckley’s sorrowful. The list of the ways it has been interpreted goes on and on.
And my guess would be that it is this, that has made the song attractive to Dylan – that it can be reworked to mean so many different things. Just as his own songs can. Here are the lyrics…
Now, I've heard there was a secret chord That David played, and it pleased the Lord But you don't really care for music, do you? It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth The minor fall, the major lift The baffled king composing hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Your faith was strong but you needed proof You saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya She tied you to a kitchen chair She broke your throne, and she cut your hair And from your lips she drew the hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah You say I took the name in vain I don't even know the name But if I did, well really, what's it to you? There's a blaze of light in every word It doesn't matter which you heard The holy or the broken hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah Hallelujah 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 Hallelujah
The point for many people, I suspect, is also that anyone can take a line from the song and it can mean something to that person in that situation. And indeed that can be said of so much of Bob’s music. I seem to have come across so many people who hold a few lines of Dylan very close to their heart.
But let me finish with one trio of lines
She tied you to a kitchen chair She broke your throne, and she cut your hair And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
And, well, yes, what exactly is going on there, particularly in relation to the lines that come before? Please do let me know.
Here’s the verse in full
Your faith was strong but you needed proof You saw her bathing on the roof Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya She tied you to a kitchen chair She broke your throne, and she cut your hair And from your lips she drew the hallelujah
And some people say Bob can be obscure.
An index to some of the other articles in the “Why does Dylan like?” series is here.