Why does Dylan like Cohen’s “Hallelujah” but not his own?

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.

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9 Responses to Why does Dylan like Cohen’s “Hallelujah” but not his own?

  1. Larry Fyffe says:

    And Deliah said unto Samson
    ‘Behold, thou has mocked me, and told me lies
    Now tell me, I pray thee, wherewith thou mightiest be bound’
    And he said unto her
    ‘If they bind me fast with new ropes that never were occupied
    Then shall I be weak, and as another man’
    Delilah therefore took new ropes, and bound him therewith ….(Judges 16:10-12)

    And it came to pass in an eveningtide
    That David arose from off his bed
    And walked upon the roof of the king’s house
    And from the roof he saw a woman washing herself
    And the woman was very beautiful to look upon
    (II Samuel 11:2)

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    ‘If I be shaven, then my strength will go from me
    And I shall be weak, and be like other men’

    And she made him sleep upon her
    knees, and she called a man
    And she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head
    And she began to afflict him
    And his strength went from him
    (Judges 16: 17, 19)

  3. Larry Fyffe says:

    And it cameto pass when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul
    That David took an harp, and played with his hand
    So Saul was refreshed, and was well
    And the evil spirit departed from him
    (I Samuel: 23)

    Leonard splices biblical stories together.

  4. Larry Fyffe says:

    And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
    But love is not some kind of victory march
    (Lenard Cohen: Hallelujah)

    Tie your banner on you well
    ‘Cause I want you
    (Bob Dylan: Hallelujah)

  5. Babette says:

    1979 Israel won the European Song Contest: Milk and Honey: Hallelujah They praised the lord and life in general. Everybody was happy. I THINK it might be a response to that kind of sweet POP music and the conform vision of life it reflects. So Bob Dylan answers: Listen how King David would have composed the music and then he gives his version. The next problem is the conform life you are forced to live, when you get married. “she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, and she cut your hair^. and your wife even want you to say, that you like it. She wants you to say “Hallelujah” and tell that you are satisfied. But no – it was not a happy Hallelujah. It was a broken Hallelujah, because the poet and the composer needed their freedom. Now Leonard Cohen answers Bob Dylan : “I know this room, I have walked this floor ” He knows exactly what Bob complains about, because he has experienced the same. Cohen writes some more verses and then he compose the most heartbreaking and wonderful music.

  6. Larry Fyffe says:

    Cohen sings:

    And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
    But this love, love is not some kind of victory march

    Dylan’s song goes:

    Tie your banner
    On you well
    ‘Cause I want you

  7. Larry Fyffe says:

    Rather a similar sentiment

  8. Aaron G says:

    “There is a religious Hallelujah, but there are many other ones .When one looks at the world and his proper life there’s only one thing to say, it is ‘Hallelujah’ “.
    “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion”.
    “And then I realize there is a Hallelujah more general that we speak to the world, to life”.

    (Leonard Cohen interviews, 1985 – 1988)

  9. Larry Fyffe says:

    * But listen love, love is not ….

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