November 1st, 2008
Hopefully you’re nice and rested after the frolics of Halloween. The 1st November is a more sedate All Souls day, and what better way to celebrate that than with a truly uplifting song?
The song has been discussed, debated and analysed by lyricists, theologians, academics and countless earnest undergraduates. It has also been recorded and reinterpreted by numerous musicians, each giving the song their own treatment and sound.
I’ve used the song a lot in teaching qualitative research – particularly how you interpret text and dialogue as Hallelujah is particularly good at evoking varied responses from people. It shows very simply that one person’s interpretation of a text is completely different to another person’s. And that the mood you are in, your life experience, and the baggage you carry with you will can all have a bearing on how you interpret something.
Whether it’s a Biblical account; a song of love, loss or suffering; is documenting a negative relationship or one that’s ending acrimoniously; a description of orgasm; or a spiritual chant is all a matter of how you react to the song. Partly because of its ambiguity and partly because of the relationship between lyrics and music, the song has become something of an anthem for the disenfranchised, the excluded, and many minority groups.
Although Leonard Cohen wrote and first sang Hallelujah, my favourite version is by John Cale who I think manages to convey all the emotions this complex but beautiful song contains. (If you listen to the BBC documentary (accessible through the link above) you can hear Cale and other musicians discuss their treatment of the song).
Even without the haunting melody, the lyrics of the song are also inspiring – although depressing and hopeful in equal part. Here they are – see what they mean to you….
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen (from the album Various Positions, 1984, Columbia Records)
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
Baby I have 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
There was a time you let me know
What’s really 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
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