Friday, January 25, 2008

A "Hallelujah" Reflection

Not long ago, my colleague the Rev. James Ford, over at Monkey Mind , posted a music video of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah which captivated me and got me singing it constantly. I asked my fellow house-concert musicians if they'd be up for my singing it as part of our concert, even though it isn't really in the Hoagy Carmichael genre (duh!), but one of them was opposed, so I dropped it. But I'm still singing it and re-running the video to learn the words.

In that process, I have been thinking hard about the words. There are several versions out there but of them all, I prefer Cohen's personal version as it appeared on MonkeyMind. Because of the implied violence in one stanza, I've had to examine my attachment to the song.

Here are the words:

"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen

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 ya?
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 ya
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, 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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, 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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

If I were ever to sing it for an audience, I would be trying to convey a message. Not of a sexual encounter between King David and Bathsheba, not of the crimes David committed in taking her for his queen and breaking the integrity of the throne, not of the metaphoric shaming of David in the song by alluding to Delilah's cutting of Samson's hair and stealing his strength, but of how, in finding the chord of "Hallelujah", we humans bumble and make mistakes, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately.

The lines "there's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter what you heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah" and "And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah" express for me the ecstasy of those times of joy beyond sorrow and shame, that couldn't have happened if it hadn't been for the sorrow and shame, the wisdom that comes from living through that pain and coming out on the other side, understanding and accepting that this is life and life abundant.

And I'm with James, I want it sung at my memorial service!


Anonymous said...

I like this song so much. I am curious why someone would oppose singing it. Any clue?

ms. kitty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ms. kitty said...

Oops, goofed that one up. It was just personal reasons.

Lizard Eater said...

Started to comment, but had too much to say, so had to post on my blog.

Jim said...

This song contains one of my favorite all-time rhymes: "what's it to ya" and "hallelujah."

At first glance, it seems simply impious, but it's a nice juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. It's irreverent without being dismissive, and it provokes thought (at least for me).

uuMomma said...

I linked to a version of this song some time ago. This is a song that sticks. In seeing so many versions of it, I'm thinking of creating a Hallelujah playlist on my ipod.

But your analysis is so spot on. I couldn't have figured out how to explain why this song is so fraught with ... life. Thanks.

Comrade Kevin said...

Excellent point.

I first heard that song during a period of particular crisis in my own life and there's a stanza you don't include that routinely brings tears to my eyes even now.

Well, maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you

It's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah

ms. kitty said...

That's a great verse too, Kevin, thanks for reminding me.

Mile High Pixie said...

That's a really interesting way to interpret the lyrics, especially in a way that makes these Biblical stories more timeless. I'm reading Rabbi Brad Hirschfield's "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and for some reason this post reminds me a little of what it says so far.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Pixie. I want to read that book too.