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Dozens Of Covers Later, 'Hallelujah' Endures

by NPR Staff
Dec 2, 2012 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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In 1994, a cover by the late Jeff Buckley helped save "Hallelujah" from musical obscurity. Alan Light is an American music journalist. He has served as a rock critic for Rolling Stone and the editor-in-chief for both VIBE and Spin. Rufus Wainwright performs in London earlier this year. His cover of "Hallelujah" is among the best-known versions of the oft-interpreted Leonard Cohen song.

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There are songs, and then there are anthems.

One of those anthems is the subject of music journalist Alan Light's new book, The Holy Or The Broken.

The anthem itself, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," is one you've probably heard before, but most likely it's been one of the many covers sung by the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, Susan Boyle, k.d. lang and even Michael Bolton. You may have also heard one of its many appearances in film and television.

As Light tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin, the "bassy and kind of droning" song almost didn't see the light of day.

"Columbia Records, which was Leonard's label then and remains so today, listened to the record and rejected it," Light says.

The label thought the song was "out of step" with where music was at the time, but PVC Records, an independent label, eventually released the song in 1984 in the U.S. to little fanfare.

"Not only was this under the radar, it was completely absent from the radar," Light says. "It was as if this song had never happened."

In 1994, a cover by the late Jeff Buckley helped save "Hallelujah" from musical obscurity. Buckley's version turned one man's lament into another artist's ode to love. Light says the ambiguity of the song's lyrics makes it easy for musicians to make the tune their own.

"There are lyrics that are talking about sex. There are these allusions to stories from the Bible; the King David story and the Samson story," he says. "There's lots and lots of layers."

The song really hit the mainstream when a version by John Cale was in a scene from the hit animated film Shrek. Even since, Light says "Hallelujah" is a go-to emotional trigger in TV shows and movies.

"You know what you're supposed to feel when you hear that song," he says. "You can't even hear it anymore. You just know that's the song that's supposed to make me feel sad now."

Still, Light says at a time when the way we encounter music has become so fragmented, the endurance of this song and its dozens of covers — nearly 30 years after it was first released — is remarkable.

"This is a song that people [now] use at weddings, at funerals and at very deeply personal things ... it's really kind of humbling," he says. "A song like this, you witness just how important it can still be for huge swaths of people."

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