Another way to sing 'Hallelujah' in church

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March 7, 2016

Leonard Cohen is, without doubt, one of Canada's greatest popular songwriters, perhaps the greatest. Almost 50 years after recording his first album, he is still a musical force.

In 1984, he recorded his song Hallelujah which, like everything else Cohen recorded, had little immediate impact. Over the years, the song was recorded by numerous others, perhaps most powerfully by Alberta's k.d. lang on her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel.

Hallelujah has more recently become a top request for funeral services, and was even sung at former NDP leader Jack Layton's funeral in 2011. Nevertheless, we hope, most Catholic priests gently turn down such requests.

Hallelujah's lyrics recount some of the story of Israel's King David in Cohen's own enigmatic style. Those lyrics, however, are not appropriate to Christian funerals or to any other liturgy.

For example, there is the second verse which alludes to David's infamous adultery with Bathsheba: Your faith was strong but you needed proof/You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you/She tied you to her kitchen chair/She broke your throne and she cut your hair/And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

If that isn't enough, there are the first three lines of the fifth verse: Maybe there's a God above/All I've ever learned from love/Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.

Yet, while those lyrics are not suitable for a liturgy, several years ago, a Catholic musician, with Cohen's permission, rewrote the lyrics so that they could be sung in church. (See Kelley Mooney's revised lyrics are more appropriate for the paschal triduum than for funerals, but they do provide a way of bringing Cohen's powerful melody into a church setting.