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The greatest songs have equally great stories behind them. In this episode of Undertones, we dive into the unlikely origin of "Hallelujah" and how it became the song it is today. 

Kai Vosberg 0:00
The cover song is a musical tradition that endured the better part of the 20th century and is still alive and well today. From Charles Bradley to The Beatles, many of the most iconic artists have their start as humble cover bands. When done wrong, covers can fall flat on their face, as they are written off as derivative, uninspired and even insulting to the legacy of the original work. When done right, however, they have an incredible ability to breathe new life into old ideas in a unique way. The best covers are so recognizable that listeners mistake them for original songs like the animals version of the House of the Rising Sun. Others are so striking, that they become the standard. For example, after hearing Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails proclaimed that the song just wasn't his anymore. There are many iconic covers out there. But there's one in particular with a story like no other. It's a story that explores the mythos of the tortured artist, the fleeting nature of cultural consciousness, and the impact of the artist's death on their legacy. For WKNC 88.1, you're listening to episode three of Undertones. My name is Kai and this is the story of Hallelujah.

Kai Vosberg 1:40
That was an excerpt from Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and it's where our story begins. He wrote a song in the early 1980s, which was a period of creative stagnation and an otherwise prolific career. Though Cohen reportedly penned more than 50 verses for the song, only four appear in the official recording. The creative process behind Hallelujah was so arduous that at one point, Cohen was reduced to a state of delirium, in which he found himself banging his head on the floor of this hotel room, because he just couldn't finish the song. After a five year undertaking, he finally did finish the song, and it appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions. But Cohen wasn't out of the woods yet. After Sony rejected the project, Columbia refused to release it in the US, citing a perceived lack of commercial viability. For this reason, Various Positions was a commercial failure for Cohen, who at that point had already found success as a singer, songwriter, and poet. Regardless of its initial success, Hallelujah undoubtedly had promise as a cover song. With a treasure trove of lyrical content to choose from, and a simple yet effective chord structure and melody, the tune was ripe for repetition. Admittedly, the original song's backing vocals outshined Cohen's half hearted performance, but the lyrics that he wrote are undeniably potent. There was an incredible song in there, it just needed to be coaxed out. One of the first people to recognize Hallelujah's potential was John Cale, known for his work with groundbreaking rock band, The Velvet Underground. After attending a live performance of the song, he was inspired to record his own rendition. Along with alternate verses from Cohen's live performances. kales version traded Casio keyboard chords for piano arpeggios, and group vocals for solo performance. The result was a sobering interpretation of Hallelujah, that some may recognize from the 2001 film Shrek. John Cale's Hallelujah was first released in 1991. On a tribute album called I'm Your Fan, in which popular bands like REM, Pixies, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds covered Leonard Cohen's music.

Kai Vosberg 4:27
Like Leonard Cohen's various positions, I'm Your Fan failed to make a splash in terms of sales. However, it was still an important step in the song's journey, as it was the contingency for what happened next, which is so coincidental that skeptical listeners may need to suspend disbelief. See, I'm Your Fan didn't top any charts or land on any year end lists, but one copy did end up in the possession of a woman named Janine Nichols. In the early 1990s, Janine was the program director for St. Anne's, a church in the Brooklyn Heights that was converted into a performing arts venue. In 1991, St. Anne's held a tribute concert for Tim Buckley, an avant garde folk musician who passed away in 1975. And the star of the show was Tim Buckley's estranged son, a young singer and musician by the name of Jeff. At this time, Jeff had just moved to New York after a 10 year stint of unfulfilling work as a session guitarist, and he was immersing himself in the local art scene. This is how he met Janine, who played an important role in his career for two reasons. She lent him to Telecaster he played at his father's tribute concert, but more importantly, she asked him to house sit her apartment. It was then while house sitting for Jeanine that Jeff discovered her copy of I'm Your Fan, and John Cale's cover of Hallelujah. That unassuming event inspired him to record what many consider to be the definitive version of the song.

Kai Vosberg 6:29
With its chilling guitar arrangement, and a theory of vocal performance, Jeff Buckley's hallelujah is a far cry from its source material. It appeared on his debut studio album Grace in 1994. And while it was lauded by critics, the LP wasn't flying off the shelves at the record store. Like various positions, and I'm Your Fan, Grace failed to capture the attention of the public and 10 years after its initial release, it seemed as though Hallelujah would remain a hidden gem forever. That is, until Jeff Buckley's tragic and untimely death in 1997. At this time, Jeff was in Memphis recording his second album and follow up to Grace. One night in May, he waded fully clothed into the Wolf River Harbor, while singing Led Zeppelin's Whole Lot of Love, and that was the last time he was seen alive. His body was found several days later, at age 30. His autopsy found no trace of drugs or alcohol in his body, and his death was ruled an accidental drowning. As consumers of popular culture, we have a tendency to confer legend status onto artists after they die, especially when they die young. The lives of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other members of the so-called 27 club that were tragically cut short have become indistinguishable from myth. This process of idealization obstructs people, it makes mountains out of them and in a way it distances them from us, and also romanticizes the image of the tortured artist and perpetuates the idea that suffering is a prerequisite for greatness. But it's important to remember that at the end of the day, these legendary artists were just people, for better and for worse. This is what happened to Jeff Buckley after his death. He became a symbol for the disaffected, free spirited Generation X that was reaching adulthood in the 90s. He was eulogized in song by many musicians who preceded him like Chris Cornell, Elizabeth Fraser, and Bono. And, in a twist of cosmic irony, the death of Jeff Buckley brought his music to a much wider audience. And along with it, Hallelujah. Leonard Cohen once said that many Hallelujahs exist, meaning that there are a myriad of ways to interpret its lyrics. However, it's also true that many Hallelujahs exist in a literal sense. To date, there are over 300 recorded versions of the song. Hallelujah, in some form, has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, including Shrek, The West Wing, The OC and many more. Jeff Buckley's version was released as a single 10 years after his death in 2007. And it went platinum in 2008, after an American Idol contestant performed it. At this point, Hallelujah is so prevalent in popular media that it's borderline cliche, but if we peel back the melodramatic pretense that Hollywood has ascribed to it, we find that it's still as emotionally compelling as it was when Leonard Cohen wrote it 40 years ago. I think it's only fitting that a song like that has a compelling story to go with it. Thank you for listening to Undertones.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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