Hallelujah and Other Assorted Secular Hymns

Hallelujah, and Other Assorted Secular Hymns

Hallelujah is such a luminous (or even numinous?) song that I’m tempted to think Leonard Cohen never really knew what he had with it. What I mean is, listen to his original, from 1984‘s Various Positions. We could possibly forgive the horrendous 80s production (it was after all, well, the 80s), but that wouldn’t excuse his terrible live versions of it since. Really, I’ve seen footage of his performing this song with a smirk on his face. How can someone misread one of his own songs so disasterously?

But we aren’t here to discuss that. We’re here to discuss Hallelujah’s place among a specific genre of songs known (I think) as Secular Hymns. This genre doesn’t have a particular muscial style or even, I suppose, lyrical content. What distinguishes it is more a feeling – a positive feeling, but of course one that doesn’t gloss over any of the difficulties of life. This is why something like, say, Don’t Worry Be Happy could never be a secular hymn, whereas Bridge over Troubled Water most definitely is. Important too is the sense that the song wasn’t written as deliberate ‘anthem’, which of course is subjective but remains a good rule of thumb for weeding out nonsense like, I suppose, any U2 song.

Secular Hymns are by their nature non-religious, but our culture being what it is (that is, historically Judeo-Christian), it seems a bit much to insist that they have no religious content whatsoever. I think it’s more important they don’t make the listener feel that he/she is being preached the ideas of one particular religion, or for that matter any sect thereof. So more or less the entirety of Dylan’s religious phase is out then, but not necessaily other candidates from his canon which do contain religious imagery or references – Chimes of Freedom, perhaps?

Hallelujah is probably the Secular Hymn par excellence, but which version? The most famous is Jeff Buckley’s but spare a thought or two for John Cale’s uncompromisingly stripped back and austere effort. Also, it’s important to bear in mind that lyrically there really is no one definitive version – Buckley’s had generally different lyrics to the original but to no-one’s surprise, Cohen has indicated that he has written up to 50 verses. For the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to the verses of the original and Buckley’s version.

‘Well I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord’. So begins Hallelujah, and straight away we see that it doesn’t exactly shy away from the religious. Can you imagine a chord so wonderful that it would please God? Is there anyone apart from Leonard Cohen who could write a line like that? I love the idea that God was previously unaware of this music, and was surprised by the beauty of it. We’re immediately in the realm of the transcendent, the imagery of an ancient King (I think we can presume Cohen here means King David of the Old Testament) playing a chord (on what?) so magical it elevates him towards the divine. How crushing, then, the hear the next line ‘but you don’t really care for music, do you?’ It’s just so casual, this rejection of music so wonderful that even God appreciated it. It also sets us up for what becomes probably the major theme of the song – the dark side of love and, perhaps, its relation to the divine.

What follows is a unique, sort of ‘real time’ exposition of the song as it develops ‘it goes like this, the fourth the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift’. This of course also refers to the music played by David that pleased the Lord. We then go on to hear that David somehow doesn’t understand the music he is making ‘the baffled King composing Hallelujah’. This puts me in mind of my earlier comment about Cohen not knowing what he has with this song – perhaps he himself was baffled when he wrote it. Is he just a conduit for divine music that comes from a place beyond him?

The first verse ends here and we come to the chorus, which is a good place to think about the word ‘hallelujah’, which we could be forgiven for missing due to the density and ambiguity of most of the other lyrics. It comes from the Hebrew and translates, more or less, as ‘praise God’. I’ll leave it to the end to look at what this might mean for the song itself.

The second verse again requires a knowledge of the Old Testament, this time much more specifically. ‘Your faith was strong but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you’. Well, without going into too much detail this refers again the King David, who saw Batsheba (married to one of his generals) bathing and, as Kings do, seduced her. This is a complex reference and it’s by no means clear exactly what Cohen means (but then it rarely is). I’m tempted to see it as a continuation of the theme of, to put it quite blandly, the difficulties and dark side of love. The David of the previous verse, who was able to play the magical chord, is now the seducer of a married woman, whose actions bring about God’s displeasure (following the affair and David’s de facto murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, David’s dynasty was cursed by God). The transcendent love of music has here been destroyed by the all too earthly love (infatuation?) of the carnal kind. The use of ‘overthrew’ here is odd, would ‘overwhelmed’ have been more suitable? Whatever, we can grant Cohen poetic licence for the required rhyme with ‘hallelujah’.

By chance, while writing this piece, I came across the literary critic Harold Bloom, and his theory that Batsheba was in fact the author of the early books of the Old Testament. He says that ‘ambivalence between the divine and the human is one of [her] grand inventions’. I believe we can trace a line from that directly to the ambivalence described above, with Batsheba taking a central role again. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Cohen was aware of this link when writing Hallelujah.

So, onto the next lines, and a different Old Testament story, the more familar one of Samson and Delilah; ‘She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair’. Samson, having been blessed with superhuman strength, loses his potency when the treacherous Delilah shears his hair. It doesn’t take an extremely close reading here to see again Cohen associating love with loss – loss of strength, in Samson’s case physical but more devastatingly for us, emotional. The ‘broke your throne’ reference is possibly due to Cohen again taking poetic licence and mixing King David back into the narrative – this would, in that case, refer of course to the above cursing of his family.

The final line of the verse comtinues the complexity – ‘from your lips she drew the hallelujah’. What a finish this is! A more conventional (and lesser) writer than Cohen would have had someone in love praising God before being brought low by seduction and treachery. So what does he mean here? As always, it’s hard to tell. My first thought was that Cohen was talking about a defiant love of God in the face of the ruination of physical desire, but that wouldn’t make sense given that this hallelujah is drawn from the lips, possible reluctantly. Or maybe it’s the power of love, that even the despair of death and estrangement from God can inspire someone to proclaim a still higher love? Even if the proclamation is drawn out by the very cause of the despair? As with many/most of the lyrics in Hallelujah, I don’t think Cohen intended there to be just one definitive explanation. Hallelujah is like that – it isn’t about one thing, it simply is.

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that the next verse is far less complex and ambiguous, although certainly no less moving. ‘Baby I’ve been here before, I know this room, I’ve walked the floor, I used to live alone before I knew you’. This is an immediate departure from the biblical stories of the preceding verses, and it’s interesting that Cohen himself doesn’t use this verse. I see this as someone ruminating on lost love, and indeed reflecting that this has happened before. There’s something almost unbearably poignant about the simplicity of the line ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’ – the implication being that the narrator now lives alone again, and is prepared to accept this. I think here we see the beginning of one of the major themes of the song – the acceptance that love can be painful – but that it’s still worth it, it’s still worth taking the risk. But then again, is it? The next few lines are characteristic of the ambiguities, even contradictions, of the song. ‘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’. Well, the dark side of love indeed. As the Marble Arch was originally a triumphal arch (much like the Arc de Triomphe), we can again see here Cohen warning us about the dangers of love, although this time with no such comforts about the risk being worth it. I can barely think of a more negative description of love than the one in these lines. Cohen here seems to be acknowledging that someone – it’s safe to say not him – has ‘won’ on love, but that even that isn’t enough to count as solace from the ‘cold and broken hallelujah’. Just think about theose words – a cold and broken ‘praise God’. I’d love to think of this hallelujah as a defiant one, almost, as it goes, a rage against the dying of the light, but I can’t help but see it as a bitter, almost sarcastic retort following the devastaing end of a love affair.

The following verse is perhaps simpler, but I still feel it’s open to two separate, although closely linked, interpretations. ‘There was a time when you let me know, what’s really going on below, but now you never show that to me do you’. Obviously there’s the blunt sexual interpretation, but I also feel that Cohen wants us to see it as a more spiritual thing, that the communication and sharing within a relationship has broken down. Perhaps it would have made more sense for this verse to precede the last? Then again, the song isn’t a narrative so we don’t need everything to follow on sequentially. ‘Remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was hallelujah’. Maybe I’m being naive, but I still prefer to see the ‘moved in you’ lyric as a spiritual moving, rather than sexual. Whatever works for you! But the killer blow (so to speak) is really what ends the verse – ‘every breath we drew was hallelujah’. A love so pure and transcendent that even God can share in it; alternatively, a love so pure and transcendnent that it renders God unnecessary – the love itself becomes the hallelujah. Perhaps this is again a reference to the ambivalence between the divine and the human mentioned above. There is definitely positivity here, but it’s tinged with a poignant regret – the verse is of course all past tense.

Cohen isn’t about to let us get away with that kind of positivity though, qualified as it was. The next verse begins ‘Maybe there is a God above’ – maybe? The previous verses didn’t appear to have such doubts. Cohen here has been left so desolate by love that he seems to have lost even his faith in the divine. It doesn’t get any easier; ‘but all I’ve learned from love, was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you’. The meaning of this line is unclear, and I can’t help but feel that Cohen’s use of ‘outdrew’ here is just get the rhyme with ‘hallelujah’. But it’s the dismissive attitude to love that’s wreaks real devastation. All Cohen has learned from love seems to be how to get the first punch in on someone. And who would this someone be if not the person he was earlier in love with? This really is a tragic realisation, especially in light of the earlier verses. So on then, to ‘It’s not a cry you hear at night, it’s not somebody who’s seen the light, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah’. A cold and broken hallelujah, again. If this isn’t the dark side of love, I’m really at a loss. Here love becomes, to Cohen, so terrible that it resembles nothing so much as a almost a bettrayal of its own divine origins. Remember in the first verse, love was associated with ‘hallelujah’ as something akin to a communication with God. By this point (and it’s interesting to note that Buckley’s version ends here), we’re left with nothing. It’s undeniably a depressing way to finish the song but to fully examine it, we need to look at the final two verses which finish off the original.

‘You say I took the name in vain, but I don’t even know the name, but if I did, well really, what’s it to you?’. The name here would be appear to be that of God, specifically, I suppose, Yahweh. We could here get into theological arguments about the correct name of God and how it could be ‘taken in vain’, but in doing so I can’t help feeling that we’d lose sight of the essence of the song. What’s Cohen saying here? It seems that Cohen is possibly repenting for his earlier dismissal of a ‘cold and broken hallelujah’. From the depths of despair encountered in the previous verse, we’re starting to see a more positive outlook. Cohen admits his ignorance of the name – God – which sets him on the path of re-examing what came before. The slightly childish ‘what’s it to you’, apart from setting up another rhyme with ‘hallelujah’, seems a bit out of place, but then again it could be Cohen admitting that even though previous love affairs have broken down to that extent, he still has faith in love, in the transcendent and indeed divine. ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah’. And so it continues. Cohen himself has stated that

‘I say : “All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value .” It’s, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life,not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.’

So a ‘broken hallelujah’ here is not a rejection of God or of love, but more a sincere (although presumably still mistaken) attempt to find a way to Him/it. Perhaps the gap between the previous verse and this one is what led Cohen not to record the previous one, and to move straight onto this one. I don’t think it jars, however, even given the huge change in attitude, as perhaps it’s normal for people to swing wildly between what they think of love, from their darkest and most difficult moments to their happiest and most content. A beautifully succinct summing up of the human condition, then?

So the final verse of the original version begins ‘I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch…I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you’. Here I think Cohen is trying to put across that his quest for a path to divine love has broken down ‘I couldn’t feel’, to be filled perhaps by a more earthly kind of desire ‘…so I tried to touch’. Although this result is presented as a second-best, Cohen remains defiant to the last ‘…and even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah’. It almost feels like there should be an exclamation mark at the end of that line, such is Cohen’s passionate enthusiasm. He accepts that while love in this realm may not work out, the divine love is still accessible to us all, and that for this we should be both happy and grateful.

This piece has turned out far longer than I expected, so I’ll try to be less verbose in my conclusion. I’ve made the point several times that the song is broadly about love – I appreciate I’m not exactly sticking my neck out there, so to be more specific I’ll say that, in Cohen’s original at least, it perhaps deals with the gap that will always exist between earthly desires (no matter how divine they may seem) and a state of divine grace. Too religious for you? Tough, Cohen sets his stall out in the first verse with his Old Testament scene. Ultimately, however, part of the attraction of the song is its complexity and it will always resist definitive ‘meanings’, much like most of Dylan’s best work. As I said at the beginning, the overtly religious themes in this song by no means detract from its status as a secular hymn.

So what other songs qualify? I’ve already mentioned Bridge over Troubled Water but don’t worry, I’ll hold off doing a lengthy analysis. Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come seems like a good candidate. Let it Be? Possibly, but maybe it’s a bit too nice to really elevate the listener. As far as The Beatles go, I’d be more tempted to nominate Hey Jude. As much as I love Bruce Springsteen, I think most of his likely songs are too obviously written as anthems, with one eye on the live performances. Still, though, My City of Ruins (from The Rising) could count, if anyone knew it. Dylan? Well, his most likely ones might just be Blowin in the Wind and The Times They Are a Changing, no-one’s idea of his best songs and indeed they might be too identifiable with their era to be as universal as Hallelujah. I mentioned Chimes of Freedom earlier and I think that could be a better candidate, but realisticaly I’m not sure how many people would be prepared to listen to the whole thing – it’s not exactly melodic. Get in touch and nominate your own choices!


7 thoughts on “Hallelujah and Other Assorted Secular Hymns

  1. Anne Wilson says:

    Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny – definitely
    Rose of my Heart – Johnny Cash – possibly or is it more a love song? In fact, many of the American Albums songs, all drenched in sin and death.


  2. Anne Wilson says:

    A change is gonna come – Sam Cooke (I think)
    One whose title I can’t remember but the gist is The Harder you knock me down the stronger I become” by an early reggae singer, Johnny Nash I think, but am not sure


  3. Anne Wilson says:

    We shall overcome – trad
    Eyes on the prize – traditional – used as the theme tune to a programme about history of the civil rights movement some years ago


  4. Duncan says:

    Buckley. Jeff. Belle Angele, Edinburgh (burnt down in famous 2002 Cowgate fire) Live. 1994. Ticket stub to prove it.

    Interesting fact ye didnae ken: Hymn “Lord of the Dance” written by Quaker, Sydney Carter, still under copyright (song TITLES are exempt, sadly!). First released on EP (Elektra EPK 801), 1965. First thing produced in UK by Joe Boyd, before “Arnold Layne”, before ISB, Fairport, Nick Drake et al.

    [Oh yes – I DO have a copy. File next to “Grace” – autographed. I don’t have much to boast about; forgive me Richard?]


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