Hallelujah’s Fascinating and Inspiring Story
I discovered Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah nine years ago the first time I listened to his album, Grace. I bought the CD at a local record store the weekend after my first pole dance teacher played Lover, You Should Have Come Over during our warmup.
It’s one of my favorite cover songs for pole, particularly for spine circles. I often listen to Hallelujah when doing an at home S Factor warm-up, free-style pole or beach dance session after missing a few weeks.
For me, the song embodies regretful longing combined with satisfaction so it braids together sorrow, relief and joy.
The story of the song is fascinating and inspiring. Learn more about it in Alan Light’s book—The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’ Reading it deepened and enriched this meaning for me.
The song has become one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of its time… Joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, “Hallelujah” is an open-ended meditation on love and faith—and certainly not a song that would easily be pegged as an international anthem.
In August, Hallelujah quietly celebrated it’s 30th birthday. It was already 21 when I met it.
Anyone who’s working on a project that’s taking longer than you imagined it would or could will be encouraged to learn that Cohen confessed to taking at least five years to write Hallelujah. I confess, it makes me feel better about my in-progress book projects.
Bob Dylan was the first well-known person to appreciate Hallelujah’s genius when he covered it in two 1988 concerts. Still, it remained mostly undiscovered until after Buckely’s death in 1997.
The song’s popularity increased during the early 2000s. Somehow it didn’t register on my radar.
Millions of kids sang it as the ‘Shrek song’ after the John Cale version accompanied a pivotal scene in the movie, which I did see on DVD. Though I often bought soundtracks, I didn’t purchase Shrek, so didn’t become familiar with the Rufus Wainwright version, which is included instead of Cale’s for label loyalty reasons.
I don’t associate Buckley’s version with the 9/11 tragedy because I didn’t have VH1, which according to Light featured the song in a tribute video that aried frequently to comfort a grieving nation.
I only watched one of the many TV shows (The West Wing) that featured the song during the first half of the decade.
So, it’s reasonable that I may have only heard it a couple times before purchasing Buckley’s 1994 album in 2005.
In 2008, twenty-five years after the original release, three versions of Hallelujah were in the UK top 40. Light explained: “There is an odd tradition in the UK of making a very big deal out of which song is the country’s Number One hit on Christmas Day.” This tradition catapulted Buckely’s version to #2 and Cohen’s to #36 by fans who were upset with Alexandra Burke’s commercial X Factor version (#1). This reminded me of Billy Mack’s drive to make Christmas is All Around number 1 on Christmas in the movie Love Actually. I hadn’t realized it was based on an actual tradition. I adore this movie even more now!
The more I discovered about the song and it’s many cover versions, the more curious I became about them.
10 More Covers of Hallelujah for Pole
In addition to versions I already owned by Buckley, Chris Botti, Elisa, Jake Shimabukuro and Kuana Torres Kahele, I added the following versions to my pole and beach dancing library. I also share the reason below each link.
1. Hallelujah by Allison Crowe
Though originally considered for a scene in The Watchmen, it was deemed too beautiful, too romantic and too sexy by the director.
2. Hallelujah by Brandi Carlile
Carlile went through a difficult period in her life when she’d fall asleep listening to Buckley’s version of Hallelujah set to repeat on her boom box.
3. Hallelujah (Live at the 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductions) Damien Rice
After his performance, Damien Rice explained to Billboard magazine why the song was special to him: “There’s an amazing connection between sex and spirituality, and it’s something Leonard Cohen hints at in that song. It’s almost like a Buddhist master giving you a hint, but not the whole story. You have to take that hint and go sit with it.”
4. Hallelujah (accapella) by Imogen Heap
Light reported that Imogen Heap initially said no when she was asked to record a version for the third season finale of The O.C.
“There was so much pressure on the song, and I was kind of terrified at the thought of having to do it,” said Heap. “I worried that I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons, plus I was in the middle of touring, really busy, so I had to find a way to carve out the time and space to make it something meaningful. “I had actually just sent an e-mail to the show saying I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be able to give this the time it requires. I was in the shower and feeling a bit sad about it, and I started singing it and thought, ‘Why don’t I just do it this way—do it a cappella, with no music or production, as if I were singing in the shower?’
5. Hallelujah by Jake Shimabukuro
I’d never thought about pole dancing to Jake before. He believes it’s the melody that’s magic: “What I like about it is it picks me up. It’s very uplifting, and I think it’s the way that the melody moves, the way that the chords move. This is the line that made me want to cover this song on ukulele” – he played the melody for the second half of the verse, like the lines “It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift; / the baffled king composing Hallelujah!” – “that ascending line just does something to me internally that makes me feel good.
6. Hallelujah (Live – Hope for Haiti) by Justin Timberlake + Matt Morris
Light wrote: “For some, it’s this ability of “Hallelujah” to contain multitudes, to embrace contradictions, that gives it such power. “I can’t think of another song that can be done so many different ways,” said Justin Timberlake, who performed it at the “Hope for Haiti Now” benefit telethon.”
7. Hallelujah Live at Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame by kd lang
Light explained: “Cohen has often praised lang’s rendition of the song over the years. His companion/collaborator Anjani Thomas said that after hearing lang perform “Hallelujah” at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, “we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate, blissful state of perfection.’ ”
8. Hallelujah (Live at the Winter Olympics 2010) by kd lang
I’ve already had a magic moment on Baker Beach in the sand and with the ocean to this version from the Vancouver Olympics.
9. Hallelujah by Popa Chubby
It seems a curious choice by a bluesy guitarist. Light describes it as a ‘spiky’ version. I was particularly curious to hear it because I’ve pole dance to Sweat. Then took a Burlesque Bootcamp where we did a routine to Sweat.
10. Hallelujah (Live at Coachella) by Leonard Cohen
Alan Light’s favorite version.
What’s your Hallelujah Story?
What versions do you own? Which version(s) do you want to hear? Which do you want to try for pole dancing?
Light explains that the inspiration for the book came after witnessing people react emotionally when it was sung by the choir at a synagogue during Yom Kippur. Writing the book confirmed his hypothesis that everyone has a connection to the song. Light found that anybody that he mentioned Hallelujah to had a story to share.
Now you know mine. What’s your relationship with the song?