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Dozens Of Covers Later, 'Hallelujah' Endures

Dec 2, 2012
Originally published on December 2, 2012 11:55 am

There are songs, and then there are anthems.

One of those anthems is the subject of music journalist Alan Light's new book, The Holy Or The Broken.

The anthem itself, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," is one you've probably heard before, but most likely it's been one of the many covers sung by the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, Susan Boyle, k.d. lang and even Michael Bolton. You may have also heard one of its many appearances in film and television.

As Light tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin, the "bassy and kind of droning" song almost didn't see the light of day.

"Columbia Records, which was Leonard's label then and remains so today, listened to the record and rejected it," Light says.

The label thought the song was "out of step" with where music was at the time, but PVC Records, an independent label, eventually released the song in 1984 in the U.S. to little fanfare.

"Not only was this under the radar, it was completely absent from the radar," Light says. "It was as if this song had never happened."

In 1994, a cover by the late Jeff Buckley helped save "Hallelujah" from musical obscurity. Buckley's version turned one man's lament into another artist's ode to love. Light says the ambiguity of the song's lyrics makes it easy for musicians to make the tune their own.

"There are lyrics that are talking about sex. There are these allusions to stories from the Bible; the King David story and the Samson story," he says. "There's lots and lots of layers."

The song really hit the mainstream when a version by John Cale was in a scene from the hit animated film Shrek. Even since, Light says "Hallelujah" is a go-to emotional trigger in TV shows and movies.

"You know what you're supposed to feel when you hear that song," he says. "You can't even hear it anymore. You just know that's the song that's supposed to make me feel sad now."

Still, Light says at a time when the way we encounter music has become so fragmented, the endurance of this song and its dozens of covers — nearly 30 years after it was first released — is remarkable.

"This is a song that people [now] use at weddings, at funerals and at very deeply personal things ... it's really kind of humbling," he says. "A song like this, you witness just how important it can still be for huge swaths of people."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are songs. And there are anthems.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) 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?

MARTIN: Now, even if you don't know this cover by Rufus Wainwright, you probably know the chorus. It's been sung by practically everyone in music, from Willie Nelson...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Hallelujah...

MARTIN: Susan Boyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

SUSAN BOYLE: (Singing) Hallelujah...

MARTIN: K.D. Lang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

K.D. LANG: (Singing) Hallelujah...

MARTIN: Even Michael Bolton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

MICHAEL BOLTON: (Singing) Hallelujah...

ALAN LIGHT: Most people didn't come to it the way that you usually encounter, in a song.

MARTIN: This is Alan Light. He's written a new book called...

LIGHT: "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'"

MARTIN: Unlikely because many people who've heard "Hallelujah," haven't heard the original by Leonard Cohen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) 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.

LIGHT: It's that, you know, very bassy, kind of droning, dramatic delivery that - that's what Leonard Cohen does.

MARTIN: But the song almost never saw the light of day.

LIGHT: Columbia Records, which was Leonard's label then and remains so today, listened to the record and rejected it. Said this is, you know, so out of step with where music is right now. Forget it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

LEONARD COHEN AND CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah...

MARTIN: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was eventually released in the U.S. in 1984, to little fanfare.

LIGHT: Not only was this under the radar, it was completely absent from the radar. I mean, it was as if this song had never happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

JEFF BUCKLEY: (Singing) Maybe there's a God above. But all I've ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you...

MARTIN: This 1994 cover, by the late Jeff Buckley, helped save "Hallelujah" from musical obscurity; transforming one man's lament to another's ode to love.

Light says the ambiguity of the song's lyrics makes it easy for musicians to make the tune their own.

LIGHT: There are lyrics that are talking about sex. There are these allusions to stories from the Bible - the King David story, and the Samson story. And there's lots and lots of layers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHREK")

MIKE MYERS: (as Shrek) Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.

MARTIN: What do ogres have to do with the success of "Hallelujah?" Well...

LIGHT: It's usually identified as the "Shrek" song.

MARTIN: All thanks to a cover by John Cale, used in a sad scene in "Shrek," the hit animated film. And ever since, Light says "Hallelujah" is a go-to emotional trigger in TV shows and movies.

LIGHT: You know what you're supposed to feel, when you hear that song. You can't even hear it anymore. You just know, that's the song that's supposed to make me feel sad now.

MARTIN: Still, Light says at a time when the way we encounter music has become so fragmented, the endurance of this song - nearly 30 years after it was first released, and dozens of covers later - is remarkable.

LIGHT: And you see that this is a song that people use at weddings, at funerals, at very deeply personal things. I don't know, there's - really kind of humbling; when it's very easy to discount and think oh, music isn't - it used to be important to people, and now it's not that important; a song like this, you witness just how important it can still be for huge swaths of people.

MARTIN: Alan Light - his book is called "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'"

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

BUCKLEY: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.