Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang

Hello there! In this week’s blog we will discuss the song Hallelujah. This has to be one of the most frequently-covered songs of all time. We will review the original written by Leonard Cohen. We will then discuss covers of this song by Jeff Buckley and by k. d. lang.

Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7, 2016. As we will see, Cohen was a man of many talents. We want to dedicate this blog post to our good friend Merle McClung, whom we met when we were in graduate school. Cohen’s song Democracy (Is Coming to the USA) is one of Merle’s favorite songs. So, this post is for you, Merle.

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah:

Leonard Cohen was a multi-talented artist. He began his career as a poet and novelist, but then branched out to become a singer-songwriter.

Cohen was born in 1934 to a middle-class Jewish family in an English-speaking area of Montreal. Cohen’s paternal grandfather had been the founder of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Below is a photo of Leonard Cohen performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

While a student at McGill University, Cohen began publishing books of poetry. Among other things, his poetry and novels were known for sexually explicit imagery, but also for their focus on themes of depression and suicide.

Cohen suffered from depression for much of his life, and this was reflected in some of his writing and his songs. Cohen’s writing was well-reviewed, and he was considered one of Canada’s most promising young poets.

In 1966, Cohen moved to the U.S. Here he began his songwriting career. By that time
he’d published four books of poetry and two novels … “But I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Cohen said in 1971. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but … I’m really starving.”

Cohen developed a small but enthusiastic group of admirers for his singing and songwriting. In 1967, producer John Hammond signed Cohen to a record deal with Columbia Records.

As we will see, throughout his career Leonard Cohen benefited greatly when his songs were included in the soundtracks of movies that became famous. Cohen’s first big break in this regard came in 1971, when director Robert Altman included three of Cohen’s songs in his movie, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

In 1984, Leonard Cohen released the album, Various Positions. One of the songs on that album was Hallelujah. Hallelujah is richly sprinkled with allusions, several of them Biblical.

Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

[CHORUS] 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 you.
She tied you to her kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.


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


In the first stanza are the lyrics: “it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift.” This refers to the chord progression in the song, namely: C; F; G; A minor; F.

The song begins with a reference to King David’s musical abilities. In the second stanza, there is a reference to the story of David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof …”), followed by lines that refer to Samson and Delilah (“she tied you to a kitchen chair … and she cut your hair”).

However, it would be a mistake to think of the song as primarily composed of references to the Bible. The song is a review of a love affair. The singer remembers the initial stages of joy and lust, with images of attraction and ecstasy.

Unfortunately, the relationship eventually failed, and the singer’s final memory is of a relationship that eventually resembled “not a victory march, but a cold and broken hallelujah.”

Here is Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah, from a concert in London.

Cohen’s leathery and smooth bass voice is sincere and very convincing. He is backed by a band that features an organ solo at the 3-minute mark of the song, plus a lovely group of backup singers.

Cohen’s version contains at least one verse that is not included by either Jeff Buckley or k.d. lang, whom we will feature later. Of course, Cohen’s original poem, from which this song was distilled, contained 80 verses.

The album Various Positions was considered sufficiently disappointing that Columbia Records executives did not want to release it. In fact, Columbia originally decided not to issue the album in the U.S.

Various Positions came out at a relatively low point in Cohen’s career; it was not given much publicity and at first the album had little impact. The single Hallelujah from that album did not make much of a splash, either. But in 1991 it was covered by John Cale.

Cale was a Welsh artist and a founder of the band Velvet Underground. John Cale’s cover of Hallelujah was included in a Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. The verses Cale chose from Cohen’s original 80-stanza poem have become the ‘standard’ set of lyrics that were subsequently used by nearly every artist covering this tune.

Even following Cale’s cover, Cohen’s song was still resting in relative obscurity. However, in 2001 Hallelujah was included in the soundtrack of the blockbuster animated movie Shrek. And then – Va-voom!! The song took off like a rocket.

Hallelujah became a big hit. Sales of Cohen’s album Various Positions soared. And more significantly, other artists realized the dramatic possibilities in the song Hallelujah.

To date, there are nearly 300 covers of Hallelujah. Also, the song is the subject of an entire book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, published in 2012 by Alan Light.

It seems that every singer Hallelujah. The tune has now been covered so many times that it is legitimate to ask, “At what point might a song become too popular?”

In addition to the versions we will review by Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang, there are covers by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Bono, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, and Neil Diamond.

Early on, the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was admired by a relatively small group of devotees. However, once his career took off and songs such as Hallelujah became famous, Cohen became extremely well known and commercially successful.

In 1994, three of Cohen’s songs were included in the soundtrack of the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers, that starred Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. This film helped to introduce Cohen’s work to a young generation of music fans.

Between 2008 and 2010, Cohen embarked on an extensive world tour. The tour included performances at the Glastonbury Festival, London’s O2 Arena and Royal Albert Hall. The North American leg of the tour included an appearance at the 2009 Coachella Festival, where Cohen performed Hallelujah and other songs in front of a gigantic crowd.

In terms of the weight of his lyrics, his influence and impact on young musicians, and the longevity of his career, Cohen has been compared to such great pop singer-songwriters as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.

In 2004, Cohen discovered that his long-time business manager, Kelley Lynch, had been siphoning money from his accounts. Cohen claimed that not only his business accounts, but also his personal retirement account and charitable accounts, had all been drained by Ms. Lynch.

In 2006, Cohen won a civil suit for $9 million against Ms. Lynch. However, apparently Ms. Lynch did not respond to a subpoena requiring her to turn over her financial records, and it was not clear that Cohen ever was able to collect on this amount.

In 2012,
a Los Angeles court found Lynch guilty of harassing the songwriter [Cohen]. She was convicted on five charges of violating protective orders, making harassing phone calls and sending thousands of emails.

Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He was also inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 7, 2016 Leonard Cohen died. At that time, Cohen had cancer that was expected to be fatal. In his last studio album, You Want It Darker, several songs addressed the end of his life. On the evening of Nov. 7, Cohen suffered a fall in the middle of the night; he subsequently died in his sleep that evening.

What an impressive career! Leonard Cohen was an acclaimed poet and novelist. He then branched out as a singer-songwriter. His career had its ups and downs, but later in life his singing career was extremely successful. We remember Mr. Cohen with fondness and great admiration.

Jeff Buckley, Hallelujah:

Jeff Buckley was a musician whose career was tragically cut short. He was the son of Tim Buckley and Mary Guibert. Tim Buckley was a singer-songwriter and guitar player.

Tim Buckley’s performing career began in the mid-sixties when he appeared as a folk-rock singer. In the late 60s his music veered off towards jazz and blues-rock fusion. Although creative and talented, Buckley was also hard to work with, and his rapid changes of musical style alienated many of his fans.

Unfortunately, Tim Buckley developed serious problems with drugs and alcohol. He also seemed to thrive on dangerous behavior, such as driving like a maniac and bingeing on various drugs.

Tim Buckley’s luck ran out on June 28, 1975, when he died after ingesting a bag of heroin. Jeff Buckley never knew his father, as his parents had split up a few months before Jeff’s birth.

Jeff Buckley was raised by his mother and stepfather, Ron Moorhead. The family was very musical; Jeff’s mother was a classically-trained cellist, and his stepfather introduced him to the music of classic rockers such as Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Below is a photo of a young Jeff Buckley in performance.

After graduating from high school, Buckley spent the next few years working odd jobs while performing as a session musician and back-up singer. His first real break came when he sang a couple of his father’s songs at a tribute to Tim Buckley.

After that, Jeff Buckley began performing at various clubs in the New York area. He made a number of appearances at the East Village club Sin-e. Although Buckley is mainly known for his guitar work, he was multi-talented and could play electric piano, organ, dulcimer and harmonica among other instruments.

Cover of Jeff Buckley's album Grace (Columbia Records, 1994).

Cover of Jeff Buckley’s album Grace (Columbia Records, 1994).

Buckley’s public performances were considered sufficiently promising that he landed a contract with Columbia Records. In August 1994 Buckley released his one and only album, Grace. The cover of that album is shown at left.

However, neither Buckley’s album Grace nor any of the single records from that album sold well when they were released. The album was quite popular in France and Australia, but American sales were slow.

Despite his lack of commercial success, Buckley impressed a number of influential artists with his potential, notably Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan and David Bowie.
in an interview with Village Voice, David Bowie named Grace as the one album he would take with him to a desert island.

Here is Jeff Buckley in the music video for Hallelujah. This was a cover of the Leonard Cohen tune from his album, Grace.

First off, I want to discuss Buckley’s technique on his Fender Telecaster guitar. In an electric guitar solo that occupies the first 90 seconds of this video, Buckley produces stunningly beautiful notes. The low notes are clear and sonorous, while the high notes resonate like chimes.

Buckley’s terrific guitar work continues through the song, and the instrumental work forms a perfect fit with Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. I can listen to Buckley’s rendition over and over again, and I am moved and thrilled every time I hear it.

In Buckley’s hands, Hallelujah would seem absolutely appropriate in a church service; at the same time, the lyrics are both erotic and depressing.

As we mentioned in the preceding section, the verses chosen by Buckley are the same as those used by John Cale, and included in Cale’s contribution to the  Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan.

Today, Buckley’s Hallelujah is now considered one of the great songs of our era. It is listed by Rolling Stone magazine as #259 in their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; and in 2014 Buckley’s cover was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

Following the release of the album Grace, Buckley embarked on a series of concert tours around the world. There were some high points: his appearances in Australia were sufficiently well-received that Buckley’s album Grace went gold there; and in France Buckley sold out the prestigious Paris Olympia venue.

However, in March 1996 tensions between other band members and Buckley’s drummer Matt Johnson became sufficiently acute that Johnson dropped out of the band. At this point Buckley stopped touring and began preparations to release a new album.

During this period, Buckley played backup on records by several of his colleagues. He was also recording demos in New York for a second album, but then became excited by the music scene and recording studios in Memphis.

At the end of May, 1997, Buckley’s band was in New York while Jeff was in Memphis. He had sent the band some home-made demos of songs for his new album, and the band was preparing to join Buckley in Memphis.

On the evening of May 29, 1997, Jeff Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbor, a channel of the Mississippi River in the Memphis area. He jumped into the water still wearing his clothes and boots, while one of his roadies remained on shore.

A few minutes later, a tugboat passed by, and Buckley never re-appeared. A search commenced but he was not found. On June 4, Buckley’s body was discovered floating in Wolf River Harbor.

An autopsy found no signs of drugs or alcohol in Buckley’s body. The roadie testified that when Jeff jumped into the water, he was singing Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and appeared to be in good spirits. It is suspected that Buckley drowned after being caught in the wake of the passing tugboat.

It was not until 2008 that Jeff Buckley posthumously gained international fame. On the American Idol TV program, contestant Jason Castro performed the song Hallelujah in the style of Jeff Buckley. The song was immensely popular, and sparked an instant interest in Buckley’s own version of the song.

The week following Castro’s performance, Buckley’s version of Hallelujah went to #1 on the iTunes digital charts. And one week later Buckley’s song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart.

Later that same year, British singer Alexandra Burke, the 2008 winner of the UK X Factor TV series, issued a version of Hallelujah. Again, this created intense interest in Jeff Buckley’s version of the song, and by the middle of December Buckley’s version reached #2 on the British pop charts.

At this time, sales of Buckley’s album Grace also soared. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed the album Grace as #303 in their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

What a great tragedy. Jeff Buckley died before his career had ever peaked, and after issuing only a single album. His inspiring version of Hallelujah is now considered a classic, even though it was largely ignored while he was alive.

It is tantalizing to think what Jeff Buckley might have produced had he not died at such a young age. All we can do is appreciate what little we have from this talented musician.

k. d. lang, Hallelujah:

Kathryn Dawn Lang, who performs as k.d. lang, is an extraordinarily talented singer and actress. She was raised in Consort, Alberta, a small town on the Canadian prairie.

In college, Ms. lang was introduced to the work of country singer Patsy Cline. She became fascinated with Ms. Cline, and was inspired to become a country singer. In fact, her first group was a Patsy Cline cover band called the Reclines.

As a result, she began performing in Canadian country and western revues. She was sufficiently promising that in 1985 she won a Juno Award, given annually for outstanding accomplishments by Canadian musicians and bands. The 1985 award was for Most Promising Female Vocalist.

Below is a photo of k. d. lang performing circa 1985.

Embed from Getty Images

k.d. lang’s first big breakthroughs occurred in 1988. First, she performed at the closing ceremonies for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Next, she teamed up with Roy Orbison to record a duet of his hit Crying. This performance won them the 1989 Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals.

As a result of this exposure,
lang received the Entertainer of the Year award from the Canadian Country Music Association. lang would win the same award for the next three years, in addition to two Female Vocalist of the Year awards in 1988 and 1989.

Both the original song Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, and the cover by Jeff Buckley, spent a considerable period of time in relative obscurity before they became famous. This is not the case with k.d. lang’s version of the song.

Ms. lang released the song on her 2004 album, Songs of the 49th Parallel. This came out at a time when she had a reputation as one of the greatest Canadian musicians. The song has become a staple in her repertoire and she has performed it at several major events.

Here is a video of k.d. lang in concert performing the song Hallelujah.

This took place at the 2005 Juno Awards in Winnipeg. What a great, moving performance! Hallelujah is a perfect vehicle for a musician as talented as k.d. lang.

Backed by an orchestra including a string section, she gives a bravura performance of this song. Her voice starts out subdued and muted, but she warms to the task in the middle of the song. She can transition from nearly a whisper to a full-throated crescendo in a matter of seconds.

The audience is excited right from the beginning of the song. And at the end, they leap to their feet for an extended and richly-deserved standing ovation.

Watching this video, I am reminded of a review of k.d. lang’s vocal technique, by Stephen Holden of The New York Times. Mr. Holden wrote:
“Few singers command such perfection of pitch. Her voice, at once beautiful and unadorned and softened with a veil of smoke, invariably hits the middle of a note and remains there. She discreetly flaunted her technique, drawing out notes and shading them from sustained cries into softer, vibrato-laden murmurs.”

One final touch: note that Ms. lang performs the song in her bare feet. My assumption is that this is a reflection of her vegan lifestyle, in that she chooses not to wear goods produced from animals.

Ms. lang also performed Hallelujah at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C.; she also performed the song at the 2010 Australian Logie Awards show.

k.d. lang has experienced a long and distinguished career in music. She has won nine Juno Awards; and in 2013, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

Ms. Lang has shown tremendous versatility. We previously mentioned her collaboration with rock pioneer Roy Orbison. She also contributed a song to a Cole Porter tribute album, and in 2002 she collaborated with Tony Bennett on a Grammy-winning album of traditional pop songs such as That Lucky Old Sun, and La Vie En Rose.

Cover of k.d. lang's 1997 album, Drag.

Cover of k.d. lang’s 1997 album, Drag.

In 1997, k.d. lang released an album called Drag. The album is supposedly dedicated to songs regarding cigarette smoking. However, the album cover (shown at left) depicts Ms. lang dressed in a man’s clothing. This is a subtle reference to another meaning of the word “drag,” i.e. cross-dressing.

k.d. lang is also an accomplished actress. For example, she co-starred with Ashley Judd and Ewan McGregor in the 1999 movie Eye of the Beholder. She has also appeared in a number of TV shows, including The Larry Sanders Show, Ellen, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Glee and Portlandia.

Ms. lang has long been a political activist. She has been very active in supporting LGBT issues and also HIV/AIDS research and care. When it was revealed that she was a lesbian, Ms. lang was quite concerned that this might negatively affect her record sales, particularly given the conservatism of the American country music community. She was relieved to find that her coming out had very little effect on her record sales.

The same was not true for Ms. lang’s animal rights activism. In the 1990s she took part in a “Meat Stinks” campaign. This caused a major backlash in her home province of Alberta, Canada. Ms. lang
was banned from more than 3 dozen Alberta radio stations, booed off Alberta stages, and there was a k.d. lang record burning jamboree. A sign in Consort, Alberta stating “Home of k.d. lang” was burned to the ground … Alberta also passed a law that driver’s licenses and birth certificates could only be issued for names beginning with a capital letter.

Ms. lang has also been active in protests relative to Tibetan human rights issues. This is related to her deep personal interest as a tantric practitioner in the old school of Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s inspiring to have artists as multi-talented as k.d. lang. We wish her continued success in all of her activities.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song)
Wikipedia, Leonard Cohen
Wikipedia, Jeff Buckley
Wikipedia, k.d. lang
Leonard Cohen biography, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Alan Light (Atria Books, 2013).
Leonard Cohen’s Ex-manager Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison, Rolling Stone, April 19, 2012

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife have shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, Lewis and his sibling Clark [2002-2018], who have enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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3 Responses to Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang

  1. John Philpin says:

    many thanks for the work you put into your blog Tim. Only recently discovered you – but subscribed I am …. meanwhile – on the topic of Hallelujah – not sure if you are a podcast man – but you might enjoy this episode from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History series : http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/07-hallelujah


    • John – Thanks so much for your comment, and for suggesting Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast which I listened to with great interest.
      I find Gladwell puzzling – always fascinating, yet I often disagree with what he writes. My most vivid recollection: in 2010 Gladwell wrote a piece for the New Yorker called “The revolution will not be tweeted.” His argument was that social media was incompatible with major social change. Yet, when “Arab spring” appeared shortly afterwards, Twitter was a major element in transmitting information.
      Anyway, I really appreciated your suggestion.


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