The song ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen is now thought of as a glittering jewel of genius. But the story of its rise to recognition reveals that it was the thinnest thread of circumstance that brought the song to the attention of the public imagination at all.
Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the song in his wonderful new(ish) podcast Revisionist History. You can listen to the episode here:
Gladwell traces the history of the song (starting around halfway through the episode). Hallelujah was first released by Cohen in 1984. Cohen performed the song, but would constantly alter verses, sing verses that didn’t get recorded, eliminate biblical references (then bring them back), and generally move the pieces around like an Escher jigsaw. Very few people beyond fans paid attention to the song.
However, a singer-songwriter, John Cale, heard Cohen perform a version at a club in New York, and recorded his own version, taking Cohen’s sombre, dramatic, gospelised version and turning into a melodious piano-vocal that extracted the emotional core of the song and put it into a stark, haunting light. It was released on a small French label. Still, very few people paid any attention.
One of the few people who happened to have the record was a woman who was friends with a young man, a young and little-known singer-songwriter, by the name of Jeff Buckley. While house-sitting, he happened to put the record on. He happened to like the song, and happened to perform his own cover of John Cale’s cover in a tiny club in the East Village.
This happened to be heard by an executive at Columbia Records, and the version was released on Buckley’s debut album Grace. Grace also missed its target and fell disappointingly short of the public’s attention—until Buckley disappeared into the Mississippi River in 1997, and the rest in history.
What is astounding about this chain of events is how fragile and circumstantial the links of the chain really are. This was the farthest from an inevitable outcome. The song could very easily have remained in obscurity, a gem buried in the sand.
The journey of genius is complex; creativity is an impossible web of personality, circumstance and damn hard work (it’s well known that Cohen wrote between 50-70 verses in the process of crafting Hallelujah); and the recognition of genius is never guaranteed.
We just got lucky this time.