Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 4, 2012

Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – How Many Versions and Covers Are There?

[First published Jan. 26, 2010, updated Aug. 2012, and again upon LC’s passing, Nov.7, 2016]

Right: Bono and Leonard Cohen, two guys I treasure, who treasure each other as well. Note Bono’s fairly recent “I was in tears” comments regarding attending a Cohen show.]

I was doing some research and prayers today. I had to go looking for the lyrics to Canadian/American treasure Leonard Cohen’s classic song “Hallelujah” (Jeff Buckley does the best-known American cover version, and a John Cale version also appears in the movie Shrek).

Found out –or was reminded– that there are at least two significantly different versions of the lyric, with very little crossover in the verses.

For nitty-gritty details on the song, its history & who has covered it, go to wikipedia… they do it far better than I can here.

But the short answer to “How many covers?”: it is over 200 recorded and released versions, by country artists, rockers like Bon Jovi, folkies, and probably even punks.

For listening/viewing, check  a fun little link to a Squidoo page by Carlos Scarpero, a spot where videos of many of the 30+ years worth of cover versions are collected in one spot. It’s his most covered song, and wiki sez Leonard’s favorite so far is the live Bon Jovi version (a surprise to me, as I often undestimate Bon Jovi). Another version collected there is by one of my favorite alternative Christian bands, Over the Rhine. I might like that one best, but I have not heard very many overall, so I can’t say for sure.

As for the two distinct versions:

First, here’s lyrics for the original album cut, the Cohen version (and later Buckley’s, though he dropped the last verse), as recorded on Leonard’s Various Positions album in 1984. Note the references to King David and Sampson and Delilah from the Old Testament:

Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen (from Leonard Cohen Live in Concert)

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 in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne
she cut your hair and from your lips she drew the halleujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Maybe I’ve 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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What’s real and 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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
And all I 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’s seen the light
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah… etc.

I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.

Yeah even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

  • *

Next, here’s the alternate version that I think I’ve heard. It drops the direct biblical references, and the bit about musical chords, plus it switches some of the older lyrics around, and also adds a bit of new material. The only unchanged part is the last verse, in position and word choice. However, I don’t think Cohen ever released a studio version of this changed lyric, only a live one on Cohen Live (1994):

Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
Yeah I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
But listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
No it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, (Hallelujah…)

There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?
Yeah but I remember, yeah when I moved in you,
And the holy dove, she was moving too,
Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Maybe there’s a God above,
As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
Yeah but it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight,
It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light
No it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.
Yeah even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Cohen’s own croaky voice  is an acquired taste (like his pal Dylan’s –who has also covered this & played it live), and I’m sure all this is T.M.I. for most non-fans. But for them whose light and life hangs on little details like these, I hope you enjoy it! Discuss as you feel led —>


Responses

  1. its rare that a song brings me to tears.. yours does. BRILLIANT!

  2. Thx, Mark🙂
    I have, as of now, 40-odd versions of this’un.
    Imo, there’s only two covers of LC’s original; Bob Dylan’s live in Montreal, and John Cale’s, both live and ‘canned’.
    Jeff Buckley really covers Cale, and most (if not all) are covers of the two last mentioned.
    This is not to say that the rest are bad. I enjoy Imogene Heap’s as well as Regine Spector’s and others😀
    Enjoy!

    • This is interesting to me. How many versions of the lyrics are there?

  3. Paul,
    As near as I can tell (though my memory is vague on this), there are at least three substantially different versions of the lyrics. I’m pretty sure Cohen wrote and rewrote all the known versions, though. In some cases, the verses /phrases are similar but get re-ordered or re-grouped. The theme has generally been consistent, but some of the imagery (like the King David stuff) has changed or been removed entirely.

    It doesn’t surprise me much: as a serious artist ages, he/she often feels the impluse to return to that important formative work and rework it to reflect their later-in-life wisdom or opinions. Some resist doing it, others indulge. I used to teach high school literature, and told my students that Walt Whitman had published like eight versions of his best-known collection, _Leaves of Grass_. Cohen is no less a poetic genius (and inspector of the heart) than Whitman, Eliot, Bukowski, Anne Sexton and Dylan (who *also* adjusts his own lyrics slightly at times, but mostly looks forward, not backward… not that I am criticizing Cohen for doing both).

    As I mention above, specifics at wikipedia on some of the changes over time are fairly exhaustive.

    As for WHY… life’s journey is long and complicated. Cohen, born a secular Jew, had a sort of Buddhist “conversion” later in life, but he’s also been caught quoting Jesus more times than I can count. He started in the turbulent sixties, but as a Canadian would have had a different take on things than most of his contemporaries, the better-known American folksingers (Joni Mitchell and Neil Young notwithstanding). He got throat cancer and during recovery had that illness radically shift his spirituality, his voice and singing style, and even his sense of the role of music (and speech, and silence) in modern life.

    And he’s still croaking away, still relevant, 40+ years later. Fight on, Leonard…

  4. I’d read somewhere that KD Lang’s live performance some years ago made him remark that he could never sing it again. I suspect he didn’t mean it.😉

  5. On a Diffuser.FM circa Sept 2014 list of “Top Ten Covers that are better than the Original” [ http://diffuser.fm/10-cover-songs-better-than-the-originals/?utm_source=zergnet.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=zergnet_217477 ] , the Jeff Buckley version mentioned above comes in at #3. No surprise, as Buckley was always an American critical darling, and his tragic “died too young” story (accidental drowning) makes his one brilliant album that much more compelling. That “secret chord” of the song is even more mysterious in Buckley’s case, cuz life (his, and ours) is just that weird, and often sad.


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