“I’ve heard there was a secret chord…” The All-Hallelujah Channel.

AMENDED: When I first read that one of the previously unreleased bonus tracks on the upcoming R.E.M. compilation, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982- 2011 (due out on November 15th), was a song entitled “Hallelujah”, I (like many) assumed it was the oft-covered song by Leonard Cohen. I even went ahead in an earlier edition and decried that it would be potentially one cover too many. Well, great thing about going on an unverified hunch is that you can get it wrong. I just heard from my friend Eric Gorfain, of L.A. string quartet The Section (who played with us at my Todd event at Largo last March). Turns out The Section were contracted on the R.E.M.sessions for  their “Hallelujah”, and he can verify that it is NOT the Cohen song but a brand new unreleased original.

But you can see why I immediately assumed, as many of you also did, that it was the Cohen song. I mean that song has been covered to death, and the “news” that R.E.M. had done it just fed into a blog I had already been cooking up about the staggering wealth of covers out there already.

For Cohen’s part, he has been commenting a lot lately that there may in fact be too many covers of “Hallelujah”, and like a sports star who refrains from signing his trading card to keep the value up, he suggests a moratorium. He may have a point. While the song is certainly serious, sombre even, I can’t help thinking a lot of people miss the humour in it. It’s like they only know the austere Leonard the Monk from high up in the tower of song, but miss the trickster Lenny, the cooing ladies man from Montreal. The best versions bring their own sensibilities to it, the worst strip it of any of its wit and reduce it to the folk equivalent of the Russian national anthem.

I have been collecting versions (informally) for years now.

Around 2005 or so, I was living in Vancouver and working in a variety of media jobs there. My radio show, The Paul Myers Show (on Vancouver’s Mojo Radio) had been canceled the year before (the station went “all-sports” overnight) and I was actively pursuing my (as yet unfulfilled) dream of moving to the esteemed airwaves of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). I had been doing a few one-off hosting things and was actively pitching a show to CBC Radio 2. We needed a sample idea as content for one of the pilot episodes (never produced). Among the topics I’d hoped to include in the show was a survey of the various cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah”, first recorded by Leonard himself  (on Various Positions) and released during the Holiday season of 1984.

As you are likely well aware, the song has taken on a life of its own, and has become one of those songs that seems to have always been with us, like a sacred traditional folk hymn or, or some Canadians, the national anthem.

I have personally moderated, or vociferously taken part in, numerous heated debates on the topic of “What Is The Best Version Of ‘Hallelujah’?“. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Cohen’s original version isn’t actually my own top pick and, indeed, your own lists will be different. But as this is MY blog, allow me to list ten versions that are each, to my knowledge and tastes, definitive (or re-defined) renditions of this 27 year-old neo-standard.

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

Leonard Cohen.

A 12/8 time, gospel waltz and the lyrics, I’ve discovered in research, were a bit different, dwelling on biblical stories such as Samson and Delilah, and apparently from 1988 to 1993, Cohen would change up the lyrics quite a bit. Curiously, most cover versions combine parts of the different lyric versions.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Here’s a much more recent Cohen performance of it, I think from 2009:

John Cale debuted his on I’m Your Fan , the 1991 Cohen tribute album, and it appeared Fragments of a Rainy Season (1992). It’s used in the actual Shrek soundtrack (on film) but not on the soundtrack album. Here, he does it on the UK TV series Later With Jools Holland:

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Jeff Buckley  John Legend reckon that Jeff Buckley’s interpretation is “one of the most beautiful pieces of recorded music I’ve ever heard.” I know plenty of people who reckon the same.

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Rufus Wainwright Similar to the Cale version used in Shrek movie, recorded by Wainwright after Cale and Dreamworks couldn’t get paperwork done to put it on the CD soundtrack.

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

kd lang  sang this at the 2010  Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver and practically eclipsed the event itself. She recorded it on an astounding album, Hymns Of the 49th Parallel, a collection of Canadian cover songs. Here, she does it in Winnipeg at the 2005 Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys if you didn’t know):

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

Steven Page sang it a the state funeral of beloved Canadian Opposition Leader Jack Layton (August 27, 2011). There was nary a dry eye in the country, let alone the house.

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

Other cover versions include…

Regina Spektor (audio only) at  Jewish Heritage Festival 2005, in New York City.

Willie Nelson

Bob Dylan (low quality audio bootleg recording)

Tangerine Dream did it (ouch) on their 2010 album Under Cover – Chapter One. (Tangerine Dream shouldn’t sing)

Neil Diamond recorded the song for his 2010 album, Dreams.

In 2005, “Hallelujah” was named the tenth-greatest Canadian song of all time in Chart Magazine‘s annual readers’ poll.

LET ME KNOW IF YOU FIND AN AUDIO COPY OF THIS: BBC commemorated the 25th anniversary of the first recording with an hour-long radio documentary, The Fourth, The Fifth, The Minor Fall.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post.

It’s over now.


7 Responses to ““I’ve heard there was a secret chord…” The All-Hallelujah Channel.”

  1. Am sure you were expecting me….

    While Reid and I agree with the moratorium, he was forced into a version by a demanding auntie on her bday. A man does what he is told under such circumstances. I love it when the harmonies kick in…

    Reid Jamieson – Hallelujah (home recording)
    [audio src="http://www.reidjamieson.com/reidoradio/Hallelujah-ReidJamieson.mp3" /]

    am kinda partial to his Bird On A Wire tho: http://www.reidjamieson.com/reidoradio/BirdOnAWire.mp3

    there ya have it. thx for the accumulatin’ the goods.


  2. I realize I may be pummeled for this, but Ari Hest’s version is high on my list: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQGtzWA_tLI

  3. Hello,I’m a japanese music fan ,24 years old.
    I’m a big fan of k.d.lang, and yes her version of”Hallelujah” is the best to me.
    I’ve been always interested in such stories about that song as you showed me on this post.
    But I’ve been a bit lazy and neglected looking up. So Thanks a lot for the great lesson!

    R.E.M is also my favorite and so sad they won’t continue anymore.
    I’m very interested in their version of “Hallelujah”.
    Mr.Stype’s got a perfect voice for that song,though It’s gonna be nothing new,just another cover.
    Maybe it’ll sound like a funeral hymn.
    In loving memory of one of the greatest band that ever existed…..

    I got here checking your tweets.Your tweets are always interesting.I’m always having a great fun reading them.
    I’m reading your book about Todd Rundgren,too.

    Thank you again for the great post.

    Masato Sugahara

    • Thank you Masato for your kind letter and nice comments about my tweets and for reading my Todd book. I have been to Japan three times and can’t wait to get back there. Over the years I have visited Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Shibu Onsen (snow monkeys), Nagano, and Kyoto. Love it.

  4. “Hallelujah” is Canada’s “Sweet Jane” – everyone has their own version and the lyrics are subject to change without notice. Sweet Jane even has a “secret” chord.

  5. kathy roberts Says:

    When my partner of 23 years died unexpectedly in 2002, I used Hallelujah as the primary song for her service. She died 2 days before her birthday and the last gift I gave her (I bought her 5 gifts leading up to the big day) was L. Cohen’s cd w/his version of the song.

    I did not handle her death well. I curled up in a ball for about 18 months. One night, on the 2nd anniversary of her death, I was driving around unable to sleep, listening to Sirius. The dj said he was going to play a song that he hoped would change the world. He played every version of the song without interruption. It went on for over an hour. When the last version was over, he came back on and said, “Well, maybe I didn’t change the world but somewhere out there, maybe in some little town (I’m from Kansas) this touched someone and changed their world.” Holy shit! I’m not going to tell you that I crawled down immediately from the cross I had affixed myself to but it did change something. I felt she was still with me. I felt that weird mysticism of loss and chance. And that Big Love that seems to pick the darndest times to open a door when a giant window has been closed. It was amazing. I never listen to the song now. Like Lincoln, it belongs to the ages.

  6. you missed the one i think is the best. but yes i’m biased 🙂 Bono’s version of almost spoken word poetry Hallelujah – i’m sure its out there somewhere on youtube or bit Torrent. I love it.

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