“The Holy or the Broken”: The story behind Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

This was going to be the expression of an indignant rant several years in the making, but instead, it’s going to be an admission that I was wrong.

Several years ago, while serving as the Music Director at a Montreal area Anglican church, I was disturbed when that particular Sunday’s worship leader broke out a runaway cover of Hallelujah, post-service. The congregation joined in whole-heartedly at the “Hallelujah” choruses, while I fumed somewhat indignant and rageful that this person was performing something better suited to anything but a call-to-prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be doubly ironic and sacrilegious if I, as a musician who grew up parroting all things folk and poetic would dislike anything by Leonard Cohen, let alone his iconic Hallelujah. In fact, I did love the song — and had often performed it myself — just not in the context of liturgical music appropriate for a Communion Service. I can’t remember the outcome at the time. Did I say something, or did I simply try to forgive a just another in a long line of faux pas?

Fast forward to a few weeks ago.

On the last Sunday of Advent, I visited my parent’s church, where they have attended from 1962 to this day, and are still very active parishioners. I attended there regularly with my family up until my late teens, and in the years since I would visit rarely. The evolution of my thoughts on the subject of the Anglican Church of Canada is complex and layered, and best a topic for another time. Admittedly, my attitude towards my family’s “home parish” has often been coloured by not only family dynamics, but by my sometimes oscillating theological bend and my forever growing disdain for “bricks and mortar” church politics.

As the service began on this particular Sunday, I felt content to be in the moment despite the fact that it turned out to be one looking like one of those typical Christmas Pagent Sundays that I was usually wanting to avoid.

As the hour went by, I was content to be there taking it all in. The service was perfectly imperfect, nostalgic, and irreverent (in the best tradition of a post-orthodox sense). It ended with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which triggered that old indignance, but got me thinking for days afterward about Cohen’s meaning behind the song.

Of everything I read, two articles highlighting Alan Light’s book “The Holy or the Broken” opened me up to the spirituality of this song and calmed my lizard brain.

Leonard Cohen’s song is perfect, where I am not. – Paul

See links and excerpts of the articles below:

The story behind legendary artist’s most famous song, excerpted from Alan Light’s 2012 book ‘The Holy or the Broken’, published in Rolling Stone, Dec. 12, 2019.

EXCERPT:

In a July 2011 service at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the reading of this story was accompanied by a performance of “Hallelujah.” The Reverend Dr. R. M. A. “Sandy” Scott delivered a sermon with his explication of the David story and its usage in the song.

“The story of David and Bathsheba is about the abuse of power in the name of lust, which leads to murder, intrigue, and brokenness,” said Reverend Scott. He recounted that until this point, David had been a brave and gifted leader, but that he now “began to believe his own propaganda – he did what critics predicted, he began to take what he wanted.”

Reverend Scott calls the choice of the word baffled to describe this David “an obvious understatement on Cohen’s part. David is God’s chosen one, the righteous king who would rule Israel as God’s servant. The great King David becomes no more than a baffled king when he starts to live for himself.

“But even after the drama, the grasping, conniving, sinful King David is still Israel’s greatest poet, warrior and hope,” Scott continued. “There is so much brokenness in David’s life, only God can redeem and reconcile this complicated personality. That is why the baffled and wounded David lifts up to God a painful hallelujah.”

Following the David and Bathsheba reference, the sexuality of the lyrics is drawn further forward and then reinforced in an image of torture and lust taken from the story of Samson and Delilah – “She tied you to a kitchen chair / she broke your throne, she cut your hair” – before resolving with a vision of sexual release: “and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!” Both biblical heroes are brought down to earth, and risk surrendering their authority, because of the allure of forbidden love. Even for larger-than-life figures and leaders of nations, the greatest physical pleasure can lead to disaster.

“The power of David and the strength of Samson are cut away; the two are stripped of their facile certainties, and their promising lives topple into the dust,” wrote Reverend Thomas G. Casey, S.J., a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University, of these first two verses. “The man who composed songs of praise with such aplomb and the man whose strength was the envy of all now find themselves in a stark and barren place.”

Lisle Dalton, an associate professor of religious studies at Hartwick College, noted the many levels on which Cohen’s linking of David and Samson works. “Both are heroes that are undone by misbegotten relationships with women. Both are adulterers. Both are poets – Samson breaks into verse right after smiting the Philistines. Both repent and seek divine favor after their transgressions.

“I don’t know a lot about Cohen’s personal life,” Dalton continued, “but he seems to be blending these two figures together with, we presume, some of his own experiences. There’s no ‘kitchen chair’ in the Bible! There’s a biblical irony that highlights the tendency of even the most heroic characters to suffer a reversal of fortunes, even destruction, because they cannot overcome their sinful natures. The related tendency, and the moral message, is for the character to seek some kind of atonement.”

In the third verse of “Hallelujah,” Cohen’s deadpan wit returns, offering a rebuttal to the religious challenge presented in the previous lines. “You say I took the Name in vain,” he sings. “I don’t even know the name.” He then builds to the song’s central premise – the value, even the necessity of the song of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread. “There’s a blaze of light in every word; / it doesn’t matter which you heard, / the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!”

“A blaze of light in every word.” That’s an amazing line. Every word, holy or broken – this is the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it. Like our forefathers, and the Bible heroes who formed the foundation of Western ethics and principles, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain. But Cohen is telling us, without resorting to sentimentality, not to surrender to despair or nihilism. Critics may have fixated on the gloom and doom of his lyrics, but this is his offering of hope and perseverance in the face of a cruel world. Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.

Finally, the remarkable fourth verse drives this point home, starting with an all-too-human shrug: “I did my best; it wasn’t much.” Cohen reinforces his fallibility, his limits, but also his good intentions, singing, “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.”

And as he brings the song to a conclusion, Cohen shows that for a composition that has often come to be considered a signifier of sorrowful resistance, “Hallelujah” was in fact inspired by a more positive feeling. “It’s a rather joyous song,” Cohen said when Various Positions was released.  “I like very much the last verse – ‘And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!’ ” (While the published lyrics read “nothing on my lips,” Cohen has actually almost always sung “nothing on my tongue” in this line.) Though subsequent interpreters didn’t always retain this verse, its significance to Cohen has never waned: Decades later, when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he recited this full last verse as the bulk of his acceptance speech.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” he once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

“He’s rescued the word hallelujah from being just a religious word,” said the Right Reverend Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon, in the BBC radio documentary. “We’re broken human beings, all of us, so stop pretending, and we can all use the word hallelujah because what it comes from is being open and transparent before God and the world and saying, ‘This is how it is, mate.’ “

Read the rest here

AND ALSO…

Time Passes, but a Song’s Time Doesn’t

Time Passes, but a Song’s Time Doesn’t – a review of Alan Light’s book ‘The Holy or the Broken’ in the New York Times, by Janet Maslin, Dec. 9. 2019

ALSO

About cPaul

Father: "He never amounted to anything". Mother: "Who the hell does he think he is"? Former Teacher: "Smart as a bag of hammers". Former Boss: "Condescending". Brother: "Mom loves me more".
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