The Guardian view on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah: praise be | Editorial

Great anthems are not always the best songs but they play the important role of channelling communal emotions

Many films have used songs as titles, but the release of a documentary dedicated to a single one – Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – is a rarity, raising the question of why some music takes on a life of its own. Part of the reason, in this age of endless recycling, is the number of times a track is covered, or sampled, by later artists. In a recent chart, Hallelujah took 48th place, with 112 recorded covers, from Bob Dylan to Bono. When the actor Rita Tushingham chose it as one of her castaway tracks on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, it wasn’t Cohen’s 1984 original that she nominated but Jeff Buckley’s version, released in 1994 – itself inspired by John Cale’s reinterpretation. Other fans will recognise the latter from the movie Shrek. At this point in its afterlife it’s quite possible to know the song without having any idea who wrote it.

Hallelujah is an anthem – a musical form that originated as a call-and-response type of liturgical music, and became a vehicle for the inspiration of congregations. Part of its power lies in its sense of reverence – of worship – even though the object of that worship is not a god at all but its own mischievous creativity in the face of the human condition.

You only have to think of My Way – another song that inspired its own biopic – to realise that the modern secular anthem is no stranger to lesser gods, in this case the solipsistic mid-20th-century idolisation of personal destiny. It became the shout-out of choice for the end of long, drunken evenings, or of people’s lives. Last year, it was the closing number at the funeral of Covid-era hero Captain Sir Tom Moore. Frank Sinatra, who popularised it, came to regard it as something trite and unsavoury that had stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Cohen also hated it, except in a cover version by Sid Vicious which he felt exploded “the certainty, the self-congratulation”.

However, the stickiness that Sinatra so detested is the key to a musical form that has often also served an agent of conscience: Nina Simone reframed Kurt Weill’s Pirate Jenny in the early 1960s as a cry for vengeance in America’s southern states. Sheryl Crow wrote one of the great anthems for peace, Redemption Day, after visiting war-torn Bosnia in 1995, and it was picked up by Johnny Cash after the outbreak of the Iraq war. Crow later released a version in which she duetted with Cash years after his death.

Whether aiming high or low, the key to an anthem is a simple and often repeated chorus, which makes it easy to remember and sing along to. It helps to have a big dollop of sentimentalism, as did Rodgers and Hammerstein’s football anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, which made its unlikely way from the 1940s musical Carousel to the Liverpool Kop after manager Bill Shankly picked a cover version by Gerry and the Pacemakers as his eighth Desert Island Disc on the eve of the 1965 FA Cup final. It recently deposed My Way as the UK’s funeral anthem of choice. Like so many anthems, it has become part of the culture, an outlet for big communal emotions that might otherwise be inexpressible. Great anthems might not always be admirable but they are necessary.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Was Leonard Cohen’s Marianne the last artist’s ‘muse’? Let’s hope so | Fiona Sturges
Nick Broomfield’s film underlines the downside of a life spent providing inspiration for a male artist, says arts writer Fiona Sturges

Fiona Sturges

23, Jul, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Leonard Cohen’s timeless quality | Brief letters
Brief letters: Leonard Cohen | Remembrance Day | Montenegran coup threat | Walsall


11, Nov, 2016 @7:07 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Leonard Cohen: art lasts; life doesn’t | Editorial
Editorial: Poetry is an endless conversation and argument with the dead – the most important talk we’ll ever have


11, Nov, 2016 @6:41 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on improvisation: in praise of imperfection | Editorial
Editorial: From the Grateful Dead to André Previn, collective spontaneity makes music dangerous – and alive


01, Mar, 2019 @6:25 PM

Article image
‘More than a song’: the enduring power of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah
In a new documentary, fans and experts explore the legacy of a song that was originally shunned before becoming a timeless classic

Rob LeDonne

29, Jun, 2022 @6:19 AM

Article image
Hallelujah! Leonard Cohen’s almighty struggle with rejected song that became a classic
A new film tells the story of the song, written over 10 years with 180 versions

Richard Brooks

17, Sep, 2022 @12:09 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on classical music: normality is futility | Editorial
Editorial: If the past weeks have shown anything, it is that steady progress towards pre-pandemic life is a fantasy. Radical thinking is required


27, Sep, 2020 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on critics: thin-skinned artists beware | Editorial
Editorial: US rapper Lizzo took to social media when angered by an unflattering review. But the wisdom of crowds hasn’t altered the need for independent, expert advice


26, Apr, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Viktor Orbán’s laws: controlling culture | Editorial
Editorial: The backlash over Hungary’s new theatre legislation is not just political drama. It is a democratic and artistic crisis


11, Dec, 2019 @6:46 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on new stories: helping others tell tales | Editorial
Editorial: Everyone’s favourite stormtrooper will be developing new movies with Netflix – one of several creators who have turned to enabling the work of others


15, Mar, 2020 @6:32 PM