When Bob Dylan asked Leonard Cohen how long it took him to write “Hallelujah,” Cohen lied: “Two years,” he said.
It took him five.
Almost 30 years since that conversation between the two orphic songwriters in a Paris café, over 300 performers have covered “Hallelujah,” including Dylan himself. At one point, Cohen addressed its pervasiveness by jokingly calling for a moratorium on the song.
But if this ubiquity says anything, it offers proof of the song’s universality. Not sad or happy, the song embraces the need for the former to experience the latter. Most importantly, in the wake of his death, it reminds us that loss itself is an affirmation of connection.
Already, only about 24 hours after the announcement of his death, articles cataloguing the song’s best versions and exploring its appeal litter the internet. A no-effort Google search yields 15 (and this one only adds to the heap).
The song is simple, as many sensitive college freshmen with guitars have shown. The meter rocks back-and-forth in iambic tetrameter—the traditional ballad form. The rhyme scheme of each verse unremittingly pairs “you” (pronounced ya) with “hallelujah.” And the chorus repeats a single word.
And for all of this, the simplicity belies a devastating poignance that resonates just as much in times of tragedy as in moments of celebration. The song, in fact, exalts tragedy.
The word hallelujah translates into “God be praised,” but consider what the song actually praises. In the face of indifference, ruination, and painful memories, Cohen raises his head in gratitude. Then, his gravelly, unwieldy voice opens into a barbaric yawp as powerful as it is ugly. No matter how cruel life may be, the song suggests, it is kind enough for us to know the difference.
And now Leonard Cohen is dead, but he has left us the perfect anthem to his own passing—a song to both mourn our loss and celebrate his life.