Yes, that is an odd title, but if you have read some of my stuff, you already know how weird I am. If you haven’t figured out what the title refers to, read on; it will all come together, soon. I have gotten into the habit of listing a song related to my subject matter in most of my articles, but this discourse will be just about one particular song and its music, and several links are listed at the end of the article for different versions. We are going to discuss a very puzzling song, written by Leonard Cohen, but we need a little biblical background information first.
Part of the background we need to know is about King David and Bathsheba. David was the third king of Israel, but also known for having defeated Goliath, a Philistine giant, and as the writer of Psalms. Even before he was king, he was a skilled musician (lyre/harp) and he played for King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23). In literature, David is said to have played a secret chord that soothed the soul of Saul. “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would pick up his lyre and play, and Saul would then be relieved, feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (1 Samuel 16:23, CSB).
And in 2 Samuel, chapter 11, is the story about David, after becoming king, walking on the roof of his house and spotting a beautiful young woman bathing somewhere below. This woman was Bathsheba, the wife of a military officer who was away at war. David has the woman brought to him and they make love. Well, she becomes pregnant and David solves the problem of her husband ever finding out by sending him to the battlefront with the heaviest fighting where he is killed, therefore allowing the King to marry the widow. A nice guy, huh?
Another piece of our story involves Samson and Delilah. Samson was the most famous judge of Israel and spent his life trying (unsuccessfully) to free his people from Philistine bondage. He was a physically strong man, but morally weak, for his lusts brought his downfall. He fell in love with a woman, Delilah, who would turn him over to his enemies.
Delilah convinced Samson to reveal the secret of his strength, which was his long hair, and she arranged for a haircut. Just to set the record straight, she did not cut his hair, as so many people believe, but had someone else do the job for her. After losing his strength, Samson became a prisoner of the enemy. This poor guy was made a fool. Read this story in Judges, chapter 16. (For a deeper study on this subject, see “The Story of Samson & Delilah — a Strong Man Defeated by an Evil Woman”, listed in References & Notes at the end of this article.)1
Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was an award winning Canadian singer, songwriter, poet, novelist, and painter, a true artist across many mediums. His work explored religion, politics, isolation, loss, depression, sexuality, death, romance, and much more. Many thought he gravitated to dark subject matter, but performer Judy Collins once said that although people thought Cohen was dark, he actually had a good sense of humor.2
Cohen was also a practicing Jew. He was described as a Sabbath-observant Jew in an article in The New York Times, which wrote, “Mr. Cohen keeps the Sabbath even while on tour and performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.”3 And he once made this statement about Judaism, “I very much feel part of that tradition and I practice that and my children practice it. . . . The investigations that I’ve done . . . have certainly illuminated and enriched my understanding of my own tradition.”4
During a concert in Israel in 2009, Cohen spoke Jewish prayers and blessings to the audience in Hebrew, before, during, and after the event. And in a 1993 interview, he philosophically stated, “At our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology . . . That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation . . . Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming or anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk into that biblical landscape.”
A Jew, yes, but Cohen also had an interest in Jesus. “I’m very fond of Jesus Christ,” he said. “He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness . . . A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.”5
Not to be confused with the classical ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ in Handel’s Messiah, Leonard Cohen wrote the bluesy song ‘Hallelujah’, a masterpiece which has been performed by more than 300 artists in various languages. It was released in 1984 as one of several songs on his album Various Positions. But he spent years struggling with this song beforehand. If you are not already familiar with this song, you may want to hear it before reading any further. If so, just click on one of the links at the end of References & Notes. I would suggest the version performed by Cohen himself.
Hallelujah is written in 12/8 time, which calls to mind doo-wop, jazz, and gospel music (and some classical, e.g., Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 6’ [Pastoral]).6 A composer’s time signature will tell you the meter7 of the piece and a 12/8 time signature, means four groups per measure of three beats in each group. Another way to look at it is 4/4 with a trippet feel (1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3).I thank my lifelong friend, professional guitarist Richard Rowley,8 for imparting the meaning of meter to me. I can’t play any musical instrument and I can’t sing, but I did put the information he taught me to use in writing poetry, which also uses meter in the rhythm structure. In that way, I dedicate this article to him for helping me realize the art in good music and lyrics. (A couple of my articles containing fun poems are listed in References & Notes).9
But it wasn’t the music score that gave Leonard Cohen the most trouble, it was the lyrics. He wrote around eighty verses for ‘Hallelujah’, “with one writing session at Royalton Hotel in New York, where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor.”10 Only four of the eighty verses ended up in the first officially recorded song, but there must have been many more that were meaningful to him, because he would, many times, add some during live performances. And many other performers regularly write their own verses to portray personal messages to use in this song.
The song seems like a mismatch when you first listen to it; it doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know the Old Testament or the songwriter. For some strange reason, a lot of people do not perceive any religious meaning to this song, but I beg to differ. So, it is time to give you my personal view. Understand that I am not implying I am right; it is only my personal opinion. There are probably tons of different interpretations and if you have one, please share it. (That is an invitation to comment.)
It appears the song started off as one about parts of the Hebrew Bible, but got meshed with parts of Cohen’s own life as they related to the drama and morals of the biblical stories. Remember that seventy-six verses were removed, leaving only four for the first recorded version. Remove that many chapters from a book and you wouldn’t have much coherence left. So, we wind up with just snapshots of his thought process.
This is from the mind of a devout man — someone who loves God. And from his struggles and writings, he seems to be someone who always had the LORD in a prominent place of his conscience mind. He fully understood what he wrote, but had to pick and choose from its entirety, because of time restraints. Besides, being a rather private man, he didn’t want to reveal too much to the world. “He’s not one to share his struggles,” someone once said. The song is, sort of, in code and its mystery is part of its appeal. Here are the lyrics, as first recorded by Cohen, himself.
Now 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
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 a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
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
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
First Verse. He explains there is a secret chord that pleases God, but makes the comment about the listener not being really interested. It is like a master carpenter painstakingly crafting a beautiful dinning room cabinet and the recipient is not interested in the workmanship, only how many dishes it will hold — seeing the function, but not the beauty.
But he must show the work behind this piece of musical art, so he goes on to explain it anyway. He is proud of his work and gives “a subtle nod to musicians — and for non-musicians, it’s an actual explainer of what’s going on in the music.” The music rhythm is doing exactly what he is singing about, while he is singing it. “But, that isn’t just one chord, it’s a chord progression. So is David’s ‘secret chord’, in fact, the underlying chord progression of the song – which in essence makes up the whole song?”11 I think not!
Chorus. ‘Hallelujah’ is the Hebrew equivalent for ‘Praise God’,12 from the Hallelujah Psalms that King David wrote (Psalms 106, 111-113, 135, 146-150).13 To Cohen, I believe, there were both Godly Hallelujahs and secular hallelujahs (lowercase) that brought pleasures. Some Holy and some, not so much. We all experience the pleasures of both kinds, or what he calls the Holy and the broken.
Second Verse. Cohen is revisiting the story of King David and Bathsheba. He reflects upon the idea that no matter how much good you have done, you will still be tempted in your faith and sometimes you will fail to do what is righteous. And then there is the reference to Samson and Delilah with the hair being cut. Same thing — lusts are a powerful force.
Now, what about being tied to that kitchen chair; what does that mean? I believe it was sexual: captured by passion, a prisoner of lusts, being controlled by the opposite sex, forcing domestication through pleasure? What must we give up to experience a hallelujah?
Third Verse. This is a dark verse. If your secular hallelujah is encouraged, even though you realized it isn’t in your own or God’s interest, you are alienated from God. Your hallelujah for illicit activity is a profanity. He was rejecting God’s way, but still praising him. Even when wrong his thoughts were still upon God. He sounds depressed.
Fourth Verse. As life goes on and he looks back, he recognizes that many times he wanted the touch of God, but sometimes couldn’t feel him. He confronts his errors and apologizes, saying he was never trying to deceive, not God or those around him. Even though his relationship with God wasn’t all that he wanted it to be, and much of his life went wrong, he still stands before God giving him praise.
I believe this song was his confession and apology to God. For Cohen, it didn’t matter if the song seemed, somewhat, disjointed — God knew exactly what he felt and what he intended to say and that was all that mattered.
I have selected several versions of this song with links in References & Notes. If you listen to only one, I suggest the one by the author, himself, recorded live in London.14 It is an excellent performance and includes three extra verses (seven total), and some of them drip with sexual innuendo, just like parts of the Old Testament. And take notice of the great keyboard performance by jazz musician, Neil Larsen. Cohen regularly introduced Larsen on stage as “today’s foremost exponent of the Hammond B-3 Organ.”15
Also included is a nice modern rendition of the song by Pentatonix,16 which is a cappella17 with a beatboxing18 sound instead of instruments. Another is a fantastic version by Canadian singer K.D. Lang.19 Please don’t give me grief for her lifestyle and political beliefs, because I made this selection based upon her vocal skill, not upon her personal and social activities. She generally performs barefooted, and she does here, too, but you have to watch close, as you will only get a couple of quick glimpses. This performance was at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC, Canada. And one last offering — a fun treat at a private church wedding — demonstrating just how far you can go in using Leonard Cohen’s great piece of music in 12/8 time. It is a surprise you don’t want to miss.20
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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Reference & Notes
- Hermann, Ray, “The Story of Samson & Delilah — a Strong Man Defeated by an Evil Woman”, (The Outlaw Bibles Student, OBS, 27 September 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/the-story-of-samson-delilah-a-strong-man-defeated-by-an-evil-woman/
- “Leonard Cohen”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 17 June 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Cohen
- Rohter, Larry, “On the Road, for Reasons Practical and Spiritual.” The New York Times, 25 February 2009.
Note: For an extended discussion of the Jewish mystical in Cohen’s songs and poems, see: Wolfson, Elliot R., “New Jerusalem Glowing: Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key”, Kabbalah: A Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, no. 15 (2006), pp. 103–152.
- Lang, Kristy, (radio broadcast show presenter), “Leonard Cohen, BalletBoyz, Contemporary war poetry”, (BBC Radio 4, archived from the original of 11 November 2016, [26:28 minutes in]), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081l8bn
- “Leonard Cohen”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 17 June 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Cohen#Religious_beliefs_and_practices
- “Time signatue”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 16 June 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_signature
- meter (or metre): rhythmic structure or pattern of verse or lines in poetry, or regularly recurring patterns and accents such as bars and beats in music.
- Richard C. Rowley: New Orleans musician (guitarist), songwriter, author, and teacher, http://richardrowley.com/home.html
- Hermann, Ray, “Dogs and God”, [‘Yorkies in the Garden’], (Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 26 August 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/dogs-and-god/
Hermann, Ray, “A few questions about Christmas – and what is it with all that glitter?”, [‘Glitter’], (Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 4 November 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/a-few-questions-about-christmas-and-what-is-it-with-all-that-glitter/
- Barton, Laura, “Hail, Hail, Rock’n’Roll”, (The Guardian (UK), 18 December 2008), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/dec/19/leonard-cohen-hallelujah-christmas
- Rizzi, Sofia, “What is the ‘secret chord’ in Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’?” (Discover Music, Classic FM, 21 May 2020), https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/secret-chord-leonard-cohens-hallelujah-music/
Description of the chord sequence, for those interested:
– ‘The fourth’: This phrase sits on the fourth chord of the scale, or sub-dominant chord (IV) of F major.
– ‘The fifth’: The melody moves up one note to the fifth chord of the scale, the dominant (V) of G major.
–’The minor fall’: Again, the melody moves up one note here to the sixth chord, the submediant (vi) of A minor. The ‘fall’ in this phrase is referring to the minor, or ‘fallen’ third of the chord.
–’The major lift’: This is a first inversion chord of the fourth, or sub-dominant (IV) of F major. The ‘lift’ refers to the chord changing from a minor to a major chord, and in the process ‘lifting’ the harmony. There is only one changing notes in this chord, it moves from A–C–E to A–C–F.
- Hallelujah (Hallelu + Jah): Praise God, Praise Jehovah, Praise the LORD.
Strong’s Hebrew #1984: הָלַל hâlal, to celebrate, boast, rave, commend, praise.
Strong’s Hebrew #3050: יָהּ Yâhh, the sacred name of God – Jah, the LORD (Jehovah, Yahweh).
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
- Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., (Edinburgh, Scotland: Thomas Nelson, 1897).
- “Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah (Live in London)”, Artist/Writer: Leonard Cohen; (uploaded 2 October 2009; Licensed BMI, Sony Publishing, SOLAR Music Rights Management, more). – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/YrLk4vdY28Q
- “Neil Larsen”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundations Inc., 8 June 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Larsen
- “Hallelujah”, Artist: Pentatonix, (uploaded 21 October 2016; Licensed SME on behalf of RCA Records Label). – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/LRP8d7hhpoQ
- a cappella: (Italian, meaning ‘in the manner of the chapel’) a group or solo performance without instrumental accompaniment.
- beatboxing: is a form of non-instrument percussion involving the mimicking of drum machines, using one’s lips, mouth, tongue, feet, upper body, or voice.
- “K.D. Lang performs Hallelujah – Vancouver 2010 Olympics Opening Ceremony”, (uploaded 22 May 2017 by the official Olympic Channel). – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/tcOQSk_cMO0
- “Hallelujah”, Artist: Ray Kelly, Ireland, [The Sacred Heart House of Prayer], (uploaded 13 April 2014, by ’Babak S’). – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/T95bqw0Clt8