The Hallelujah Chorus: the story of one song’s journey into popular culture.

Handel wrote his Hallelujah chorus for a multitude of voices in the oratorio Messiah. Leonard Cohen wrote his Hallelujah for just one voice, but it has been picked up by a multitude.

In the 23 years since Leonard Cohen recorded it, Hallelujah has been sung everywhere from stadiums and concert halls to movie and television soundtracks, from funerals to community choirs and private lounge rooms. It has never been a hit, yet anyone exposed to popular culture in the past 15 years would have heard the song and possibly sung along.

How did it become so well known? Is it the music, the lyrics? Is there some divine agency at work, or something more mundane? And is it being drained of meaning by its very ubiquity?

The traditional way for a song to catch on is through people singing it, and Hallelujah is sung by a wide range of artists. Bob Dylan, Bono, Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Sheryl Crowe, Rufus Wainwright, Dresden Dolls, Damien Rice, Allison Crowe, Tim Minchin and Claire Bowditch have all performed it.

According to the website,, there are currently over 90 recorded versions of Hallelujah by artists from over 20 countries.

The reach of their combined audience takes in the mass popular music market and most of the niche, sub-cultures within it. A whole new audience heard Hallelujah when Damien Leith, the eventual winner, performed it on Australian Idol in 2006.

The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

Most songs that make it into the popular culture lexicon are pushed there by the irresistible forces of saturation radio play, video shows, product endorsements and global marketing strategies. Hallelujah, however, has gotten there slowly and by stealth.

This mirrors its slow inception. Leonard Cohen told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001 that “…it took three, maybe four years” to write.

I first heard Hallelujah in 1984 in its original guise on Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions album. He performed it in on his Australian tour in 1985, and though it was clearly one of the better new songs, it was overshadowed by the more celebrated songs around it.

The minor fall…

The song emerged from a fallow period in Cohen’s career. After a series of successful poetic folk albums in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Cohen’s output had become inconsistent.

By the time Various Positions was released in 1984, hopes of a renaissance were not high, even among his supporters. Cohen told the Washington Post in 2000 that “At that time my career was pretty much eclipsed. Columbia [his record company] didn’t even put out that record in America.”

The major lift…

By the late ‘80s however, Cohen’s career was in revival. Jennifer Warnes, who sang on the original recording of Hallelujah, was enjoying success with Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of Leonard Cohen compositions.

This was followed in 1988 by Cohen’s own I’m Your Man, which introduced a more contemporary sound and contained his best collection of songs for many years.

Soon after, French music journalist, Christian Fevret, produced a tribute album featuring a number of contemporary artists interpreting Cohen’s songs. Among a line-up that included REM, Pixies and Nick Cave, John Cale performed Hallelujah, the first cover version of the song.

By then, Cohen was playing his own alternative version, discarding all but one of the original verses and replacing them with new ones. This version was documented on Cohen Live.

New verses brought new meaning to the song.

In a radio interview on RTE Ireland in 1988, Cohen described the song as being about facing reality with “total surrender, total affirmation.”

“The only moment you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!’”

A blaze of light in every word…

‘Hallelujah’ means ‘praise to God’ or a ‘song of praise’, and is originally from the Hebrew meaning ‘praise ye the lord.’

The song draws on biblical imagery to portray different contexts for giving praise. References to King David composing the psalms, Bathsheeba “bathing on the roof” and Samson losing his source of strength describe how faith can be tested, but also how it finds expression: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

The second version of the song mixes sexual references with the religious, creating a sort of explicit secular prayer: “I remember when I moved in you, and the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!”

It doesn’t matter which you heard…

John Cale brought the two versions together, selecting verses from both to express, in turn, ecstasy, thanksgiving, sadness and regret. He also arranged the music for solo piano, giving it a gentle, elegiac quality.

Three years later, Jeff Buckley recorded the song on his album Grace. Buckley used John Cale’s verse selection and arrangement, but transposed it for guitar and slowed the tempo.

Buckley, more than any other performer, popularised the song. Grace was a critical and commercial success in the mid ‘90s. Last year it was voted Australia’s second favourite album of all time in an ABC TV poll, underlining its enduring appeal.

Showcasing Buckley’s angelic voice, Hallelujah is central to Grace’s success. His ethereal voice lends the song a haunting, longing quality that is emphasised by his early death from drowning in 1997. Since Buckley’s death, Hallelujah has taken on the air of a eulogy.

Many people believe Buckley’s to be the definitive version of the song; (there are online polls and blogs devoted to this question). Despite never being a hit, Buckley’s version ranked #259 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2004 poll of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

The holy or the broken Hallelujah…

The song has been used in over 10 films. John Cale’s version is used in Basquiat (1996) and again in Shrek (2001), as the ogre laments his lost love. In The Lord of War (2005) Buckley’s version plays during a moment of revelation.

Television though, has wrung the song for every note of meaning. Starting with Cale’s version in Scrubs (2001), Hallelujah has become an almost obligatory soundtrack to any poignant moment, often the finale, of a television series.

When secret service agent Simon Donovan is shot in the final episode of season three of West Wing (2002), Jeff Buckley’s version accompanies the closing montage. It is also used in the final episode of series one of Without a Trace, as well as the season two opener of House M.D.

The OC featured Buckley’s version twice; initially in episode two when Ryan and Marissa begin their relationship, and in the final episode of season one as Ryan drives off with Theresa, leaving Marissa behind. The song is reprised by Imogen Heap at the end of the third season as Marissa dies in Ryan’s arms.

It has also played during Crossing Jordan, Numb3rs, Third Watch, The L Word and Criminal Minds. If you watch American television, you’ve heard Hallelujah.

In Australia, it features in the ABC series Choir of Hard Knocks, where it is performed by a choir made up of homeless and disadvantaged people. The singers and their situation seem to embody what Leonard Cohen says about the song, investing it with extra poignancy.

I’ve told the truth…

So why does it resonate with people? Musically it follows a typical and familiar blues structure. There are even chord directions in the first verse: “It goes like this, the fourth the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.”

Lyrically, the mixed imagery and layered meanings give the song a scope that allows it to be understood on different levels. The repetition of the word ‘Hallelujah’ in the chorus works like a chanted prayer and perhaps the simplicity of this resonates with listeners on a deeper, spiritual level.

In the Catholic Church, the word ‘Hallelujah’ is used during mass as part of a call and response motif between priest and congregation.

The very sound of the word can evoke a spiritual response in people. Father Bill Jordan from St Brendan’s parish in Flemington agrees: “Everybody’s heard the word; most often as a sign of joy and this has can have a strong, positive association for them.”

Rabbi Link of Kew Hebrew Congregation says that in Jewish services, ‘Hallelujah’ is said at the beginning or end of a prayer, sometimes both. “The sages teach that we should praise God before we ask something of him.” He believes the word itself resonates with people because “in a sense it is the crux of everything – it invokes the love of the individual towards God.”

Hallelujah will endure because it is a great song and good singers enjoy singing great songs. It is rich in meaning and lends itself to new interpretations and mediums. These elements take the song to a wider audience. Rather than drain its meaning, the growing audience continues to find meaning in it – keeping it forever relevant.

I’ve heard there was a secret chord…

As I arrived home one night recently, I heard familiar chords coming from my house. At first I didn’t recognise the music, as it was being played hesitantly, with the occasional wrong note.

Then I recognised the minor fall, the major lift and before I’d consciously identified the song, I was already intoning it – humming ‘Hallelujah’ as I opened the door.

Inside, my wife and seven-year-old son, Oscar, were sitting at the piano. They had heard the Choir of Hard Knocks arrangement on an ABC station promotion. Oscar had recognised the song from Shrek, and as it consists of the same four blues chords he had just learnt to play, my wife was teaching him the song.

It may have begun with a secret chord, but the secret is out, and that is something for which we can all give praise. Hallelujah!

Comments are closed.