The Sisterhood of the Traveling Song and the Cultural Impact of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

Artwork by Max Kolomatsky

by Erin Christie

In 1984, Leonard Cohen was at a low point in his career.  His past two studio recordings—including his 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man—flopped upon critical release and hopes weren’t high when he ran newer tracks through Columbia Records’ higher management. However, later that year, the studio tentatively released his short LP Various Positions, unaware that the fifth track—something that they hadn’t given a second glance—was to soon become the singer’s most popular to date. In an interview with Guitare et Claviers in 1985, Cohen delved into what the song meant to him: “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’ The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist.”  

1994 marked a new life and rise of cultural significance for “Hallelujah.” That year, a then little-known LP, Grace, from the “poor boy, long way from home,” Jeff Buckley hit the airwaves.   Buckley first discovered the forgotten track in 1992 on a Leonard Cohen tribute album that his friend owned. He promptly began performing it in various clubs across New York’s East Village, calling it “a hallelujah to the orgasm… an ode to life and love.”  A dear friend of Buckley’s, Glen Hansard, described his rendition as much more loving than Cohen’s more stoic version: “He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn’t afraid to sing it with absolute reverence.” He was able to unapologetically make it his own, and in choosing to do that, he unknowingly made a mark on the world.

At the time of its release, Grace didn’t get the amount of attention that it deserved, and didn’t start to gain pop cultural relevance until after Buckley’s tragic drowning in 1997. Finally recognized and remembered for his angelic vocals and charming demeanor, the California-raised singer-songwriter quickly became known for his iconic rendition and his star began to shine as bright as it was destined to. Even today, most people associate the track with his vocal prowess over Cohen’s original (which is still great, but slightly more rigid, and less emotionally-raw than Buckley’s). It is devastating that he wasn’t able to see how much his work would soon thrive, but even so, that cover and the rest of his oh, so short discography carry his legacy and keep him in the hearts of many.

One of the said hearts was that of Canadian-American musician and singer, Rufus Wainwright. Before Buckley passed, Wainwright had the opportunity to meet the rising star and after his death in 1997, he recorded a tribute to him, a song called “Memphis Skyline” which referenced Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” -- “Then came hallelujah sounding like Ophelia/ for me in my room living.” The song is a heartfelt letter describing losing someone important to you, that person to Wainwright being Buckley. “I’ve been mourning the fact that Jeff and I can’t sing a duet,” Wainwright lamented in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Eager to keep Buckley’s memory alive and wanting to take his own swing at it, Wainwright later recorded his own cover of Cohen’s infamous track and it happened to be included on the soundtrack for a hit film, none other than Shrek (2001). The film itself was an absolute hit: its true comedic genius and relevance as a film that describes the process of gaining self-worth helped it to stick out among the other animated features around that time. Even today the film remains relevant and often talked about. Because of its popularity, the soundtrack thrived as well. By 2003, the Shrek Soundtrack- where Wainwright’s cover eventually found its home- was certified as 2x Platinum, having sold over 2 million copies.  

Before Buckley’s cover was released in 1994,  “Hallelujah” was a track that laid dormant among the many others compiled in Cohen’s extensive discography, falling short of single status and staying a tear-jerker for those who had the chance to hear it.  It can even be said that because of Buckley’s version, Wainwright’s was conceived not even a decade later. This phenomenon brings about a curious question in regards to the shifts pop culture constantly endures as years pass and trends come and go.  For those who were around in ‘97- and to those who are large Jeff Buckley fans regardless of when their attachment to the track began- it can easily be said that his version of Cohen is superior to any other. For the younger generation, those who grew up watching Shrek (2001) and other legendary Dreamworks productions, Wainwright’s would certainly stick out on top, even above Buckley’s. However, that’s failing to mention the dozens upon dozens of other covers of the track that exist and are significant to individuals for various reasons aside from what’s been mentioned previously. Today, when the word “Hallelujah” is mentioned in passing it’s not an uncommon phenomenon when the song comes to mind, no matter which version you might think of.

My roommate and I had a fight recently. No, it wasn’t one that was completely detrimental to the makeup of our home environment, nor did either of us lose a limb, but regardless, it got a little heated. The argument, embarrassingly enough, was pertaining to this exact Wainwright vs. Buckley debate, coming from an avid Shrek fan and a lover of 90s indie rock.  Who, then, is “right?”

Certain films, television programs, or music-- like “Hallelujah”-- make their mark in distinct ways. Some even prompt passionate shouting matches with the person who sleeps no more than 5 feet across the room from you. As we experience life and grow older, our lives are undoubtedly influenced by what we see, hear, and otherwise encounter, frequently in the form of consumable media such as television and film. John Cusack’s character, Rob, in the film High Fidelity (2000) is noticeably downtrodden, and still, his realist approach to human interaction and relationships makes for a few noteworthy monologues.  One of the less memorable of these points out the fact that it really matters what you like, not what you are like: “the truth was that these things matter, and it's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently, or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party,” he contests. We can argue about the validity of that statement but whether we actively notice it or not, a lot of the jokes we make, the references we come back to, and the fondest memories we have, all go back to the media we’ve consumed throughout our lives.  Let’s face it: even if we don’t want to admit it, so much of our personalities are based on the type of music we listen to and the movies and TV that we tend to prefer. What makes us specifically who we are doesn’t have to be “deep” or sentimental. We could simply be a mish-mash of Impractical Jokers and The Clash and that is completely valid.

Depending on independent variables that make us who we are- including where and when we grew up and what we experienced during those years and now- this, too, affects what we place importance on, and hence, what we like in terms of media and more.  With that said, what does Shannon’s preference of Wainwright’s version say about her and what does my defense of Buckley’s say about me? For her, Wainwright’s version- and Shrek, subsequently- meant a lot to her (and likely still do) in the same way that Buckley’s version still brings tears to my eyes.  Despite our different views, we can both easily say that Cohen’s once undiscovered track is a diamond in the rough and that Columbia was foolish for initially being resistant to its release.

Over the years, “Hallelujah” has morphed from a cheesy, little known nor cared about B-side on an album that Cohen’s label initially rejected into a cultural phenomenon.  Today, its impact holds true: it reminds us of countless weddings, and even funerals, that we’ve attended where it most certainly was played. It reminds us of a man with the voice of an angel whose light was burnt out too soon, Jeff Buckley. It reminds us of our childhoods and watching Shrek, tears in our eyes due to how absolutely remarkable of a film it is (and anyone can fight me on that).  Music and most all kinds of media have a curious way of drawing people together, and “Hallelujah,” despite its rocky road to relevance is a perfect example of that.

From “Hallelujah”—sub-categorized into the Shrek vs. Buckley versions and every version in between—to our favorite children’s television program growing up, it would be unfair to say that the content we consume and place importance on don’t help shape us into the people we are today, as cliché as that may be.

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