‘Hallelujah’ | Inquirer Opinion
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/ 02:24 AM December 16, 2016

I’m referring to the music, so, if I might ask, what comes to your mind when you hear that word?

Many will think of Christian praise music’s many songs where “Hallelujah” (from the Hebrew “praise ye the Lord”) crops up frequently.  For a few, perhaps Handel’s much-loved oratorio “The Messiah” comes to mind.

But I’m referring to another song, full of religious imagery but rarely used in religious ceremonies. It’s become popular, sung by people of all nationalities.

Still can’t figure out which “Hallelujah” I’m referring to? A hint—the first line goes: “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 you?  That’s actually the third line from the song, but I thought I’d put it into this paragraph as well to excuse you.

The composer died last Nov. 10, aged 82, and I immediately e-mailed my sister and her family: Only Canada could have produced a Leonard Cohen. They e-mailed back, agreeing (since they are Canadian), adding that the Nobel Prize for Literature should have gone to Cohen instead of Bob Dylan.

Music and literature

The award for Dylan was praised worldwide and seen as a return to the original spirit of music and literature. In many societies today, musicians are still venerated as literary masters as well, their songs appreciated as sublime masterpieces of love, for a significant other, for country, for the gods or a God. As societies became more complex, musicians took the music with them, leaving literature to “writers” each now with their own specialization: poetry, essay, short story, novel, sci-fi.  Then there are the songwriters, who are not always musicians.


Both writers and musicians are treated with ambivalence, appreciated and even revered, but many remain underpaid artists.  A few achieve celebrity status, but as show biz goes, that does not necessarily mean they remain artists.

Generally, too, musicians, even if they become celebrities, are still treated as a cut below writers.  There’s snobbery, of course, when musicians are seen as less profound, less intellectual than writers.  Then there’s Cohen, songwriter and musician.


Which is why the Nobel Prize acknowledgement of Dylan as a literary genius is important. And for many, Cohen, too, is a literary genius.

Musicians and writers move the spirit because their work conveys the spirit of their times. Cohen was a product of the 1960s and 1970s—an era of searching. He was raised a Jew but explored Christianity, and became a Buddhist Zen monk for a time.

His songs, like his times, are full of angst that come with the uncertainties of our modern (and postmodern) times. One of my favorites is “Democracy,” which has lines like “It’s coming to America first/ the cradle of the best and of the worst.” Then there’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”  It starts with good times, of lovers waking up to each other; now that the better times are over, hey, we shouldn’t part ways with sadness.  The song’s lyrics and tune are languid: Think of lazy Sundays for loving and breaking up.

(For his other great songs, look up “Leonard Cohen: 20 Essential Songs” from Rolling Stone. It’s on the internet, and includes video clips of him singing his songs.)

Then there’s “Hallelujah.” After Cohen’s death I looked up the “Hallelujah” versions on YouTube, played a few of them, and concluded I still like his own rendition the best, with his raspy smoker’s voice.  Then UP faculty member Marichu Lambino e-mailed me one of her social media postings with music embedded, almost apologizing for choosing the music at random.  She just liked the tune but had no idea what its title was, or who the singer was.

It was Cohen’s “Hallelujah” sung rock-style. The singer wasn’t identified, but I played the song to Soundhound, an app, and got the name Jeff Gutt.

Jeff who? I got him in YouTube, and was bowled over by the way he handled “Hallelujah” in an audition for “X Factor.”

I asked my son to watch him on YouTube.  My son usually banishes a webpage in seconds. When it comes to music, he can be more critical than “X Factor” judge Simon Cowell, but this time he sat through the entire song, thrice. He was moved and told me he liked it especially because the video clip showed Gutt’s little son running up the stage. Gutt is a single father.

I thought of sitting down with my son to talk about David’s Psalms, and the secret chord and the beauty of the Jewish Ketuvim, 13 books including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Songs, which are in the Christian Bible as well. Through “Hallelujah,” Cohen, a rabbi’s grandson, shares David and the Psalms with the world, with many unaware of the song’s Judeo-Christian contexts.

Sacred and profane

Someday I’ll also tell my son about how religions love and fear music. Sufi Muslims use music and dance for worship, but Islamists ban singing and dancing, pulling out tapes from music cassettes and leaving them wound around posts and fences, fluttering in the wind. The ultimate acts of barbarism are the destruction of books, and music.

Christians are ambivalent, dividing music into the sacred and profane. In the Middle Ages chords had to be approved for sacred music, and there was fear of a “devil’s chord” which still lingers among some fundamentalist Christians who claim there are subliminal diabolic messages in rock music.

But all that will come when my son is older, when we revisit “Hallelujah” with all its struggles. He’s home-schooled and I haven’t figured out if we’ll talk about sacred and secret chords as part of Mape (music, arts and physical education) or social studies, or religion. Or literature.

A few days after listening to Gutt, I found one more rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by another singer, Lee Dewyze, who was a winner in “American Idol.”  Again, my son listened quietly, finishing the piece and playing it again. The rest of the day he was humming the tune. I’m hoping he’ll pick it up on guitar soon and never mind if it’s an earworm or sticky tune because “Hallelujah” sticks to the heart and not the brain.

One day in the car I heard him telling a relative that he liked Dewyze’s version of “Hallelujah” the best—because the singer was kicked out of high school! I laughed, remembering I had told him that, and more. Dewyze was a paint store clerk when he joined “American Idol,” and made good—well, found the secret chord maybe.

Cohen should make us think of discovering the secret chords of music and words, praising them, “with nothing on our tongue but hallelujah,” as they settle into, and dwell in, our hearts.

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TAGS: opinion, Religious, song

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