Rant: Rewriting "Hallelujah" is just wrong

At least five friends and acquaintances have posted a viral video of a priest officiating at a wedding ceremony in Ireland. Father Ray Kelly surprised the couple, Chris and Leah O'Kane, with a version of Leonard Cohen's much-loved (and covered) "Hallelujah".

Father Kelly has a pleasing tenor; the song obviously was a showstopper. But Father sang new words, substituting the most banal lyrics imaginable in place of the keening original.

Cohen's lyrics read, in part:
"Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.."

In only one stanza, Cohen limns anguish, eros and weariness, a hard road both forward and back. 

I went a bit wild when I heard Father Kelly sing, instead:

"We join together here today
To help some people on their way
As Leah and Chris start their life together
And now they've reached their special day
We've come to help them celebrate
And show them how much we all love them to you..."

As my father would say, Christ on a cracker! This is wrong for so many reasons  I have to get my blood pressure down before I can enumerate them.

First, you don't mess with an artist's work, especially one who is still performing, holding the copyright and writing a zillion percent better than one Lucy Pitts-O'Connor, who wrote the lyrics when she was ten, for her godmother's wedding.

If you are going to mess with the lyrics, think twice unless you can bend them into a parodic and/or eccentric mind-eff (think Tim Minchin), which is unlikely if you have spent the last 25 years in a cassock. Otherwise, respect the integrity of the work.

KD Lang did it, Jeff Buckley did it, Matthew Schuyler on "The Voice" did it,  Jon Bon Jovi (surprisingly moving) did it, even freaking Celine Dion represented when she crashed the Canadian Tenor's performance on Oprah.

As several persons who received this rant in person said, But, Father didn't mean any harm! He was just trying to do something nice! And the couple loved it!

I too think he had the best intentions. However, I wonder what would happen if a couple approached their friendly singing pastor and said, "You know "Ave Maria"? Great chord progression, but the lyrics are a buzzkill. We'll make it about the wedding, not Mary. I've put in our names! Waddya say, Father?"

Cohen wrote seventy verses over three years, and distilled two full notebooks into an anthem of anguish and hope. 

He has said,"I feel myself a very minor writer. I've taken a certain territory, and I've tried to maintain it and administrate it with the very best of my capacities. And I will continue to administrate this tiny territory until I'm too weak to do it. But I understand where this territory is." 

Leonard Cohen, performing "Hallelujah" live:


As someone who quite often takes well known songs and changes them up to sing as special gifts to friends, my advice is to" chill"! Hallelujah is a beautiful song; I've loved Leonard Cohen since I was in Jr High and we had to dissect "Suzanne" in poetry class; and I'm very proud to call Leonard a fellow countryman. But I think we really do have to look at the intention here. Personally, I was really touched by Father Whatsits song to the newly wed couple. And Mr Cohen seems to be such a cool, laid back guy, I doubt that this bothered him much. No one will confuse Father Whatsits version with the far superior Leonard Cohen version.
Duchesse said…
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Susan said…
If I had been either the bride or groom, I would have been horrified at this surprise. I have to say, I have been to a number of weddings where there were cringeworthy comments--but I've never heard of a made up song about the bride and broom.
Duchesse said…
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Duchesse said…
Sandy: So, following your logic, intention is the free pass for altering an artist's work? Overlaying that work with one's own banality is not acceptable to me, so I'm not chilling.

Susan: How people like the new version is a matter of taste (and I too find this cringeworthy), but what disturbs me more is the alteration to an artist's work. I do make a distinction for parody (as does copyright law) but I doubt that was the purpose. "

Kristien62 said…
A cover of this song by Jeff Buckley was used in an episode of West Wing, one of my favorite programs. A Secret Service agent, played by Mark Harmon, interrupted a convenience store robbery and was gunned down. CJ Cregg, to whom he had been assigned and who was in love with him, is shown wandering the streets distraught with the song playing in the background. It is a tear-jerker and a brilliant scene.
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: Covers and use of a song to accompany an event or screenplay are not a problem for me; the rendition is true to the artist's creation. What I object to is the nearly 100% replacement of the lyrics, an especially egregious offense when they excise the entire emotional tone of the original.
Tim minchin has done it too and I absolutely LOVE this song....google tim and see what I mean.
It is hauntingly beautiful.
Shame on that priest!9969688 222
Susan said…
Still thinking about this, I'm sure the priest has done this many times before and I also guess that at least half the congregation was horrified.

I would see a bit of difference in Sandy casually setting new lyrics to known music in a casual setting, not a public one.

But to make this part of a wedding ceremony, a very important event--as a surprise---just seems very wrong to me.

And I agree that copyrighted material should be respected with the possible exception of being in your own home (or similar setting) and very casually offering up new lyrics---IF you think the recipients would enjoy that sort of thing.
Lorrie said…
I've not seen the priest's version but I'm appalled at the change in lyrics. Artistic licence doesn't cover this one. It's akin to altering Amazing Grace to be all about dandelions in springtime.
Cohen's song has become a musical portrayal of modern secular society - doubting, anguish, and loss, finalized by the life-affirming Hallelujah in spite of it all.

June said…
"But to make this part of a wedding ceremony, a very important event--as a surprise---just seems very wrong to me"

Completely agree with you Susan. A wedding ceremony is so personal to the couple. I would have been cringing if I were there.

I don't mind the priest changing the lyrics though. I don't feel strongly about the song so it doesn't bother me.
materfamilias said…
Banal indeed -- and it would really make me wonder about the man's overall ministry. To so easily dismiss the anguished existentialist questioning (and yet, to introduce into a wedding ceremony a song that carries that weight regardless), to reduce it to limp reassurances about faith . . . . yes, perhaps he was just trying to do a "nice" thing for the couple (perhaps they even hinted at it as a favourite, and he made a version that would fit with his notion of "appropriate).
And the disregard for an artist's intention seems so stretch a commandment or two out of whack as well. I sing Hallelujah to your rant!
materfamilias said…
Whoops, I see I didn't quite complete a thought in my indignant sputtering above. Was going to say that while his intentions might have been "nice," meeting a higher standard is part of his role here. His "niceness" didn't extend to allowing the song to be sung with the original lyrics, so he obviously recognizes that "niceness" is not enough . . . .
LPC said…
I just kinda turned it off when I heard the lyric switchout:).
Araminta said…
I'd go further than this and say that no one should feel free tamper with the text at all - in anything. I am driven wild by the rewriting of well-loved hymns, especially with the introduction of "inclusive language" and politically correct expressions. For example do they think they can improve on George Herbert? Of course not! Infuriating.
pinkazalea said…
I'm with you on this one. If I were the bride, I wouldn't have liked it at all.
Araminta said…
The United Church hymn book "Voices United" is full of this mealy-mouthed rewritten stuff and then there is the added insult of fitting these updated words to new banal, poppy, jingle tunes instead of the full-blooded original ones. Just don't get me started!
Northmoon said…
What about Walt Disney rewriting fairy tales that were often very gruesome into sachrine sweet pap acceptable for the masses? Happens all the time; I don't agree with it but I wouldn't get my blood pressure up over it.
Leonard can sue the priest if he wants.
Anonymous said…
Perhaps if something means a lot to you it feels like a desecration almost . Adaptions of my favorite books can make me sad & angry . For instance the TV adaption of Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford did that to me . A wonderful & true historical story was turned into a dreary melodrama . This week the BBC has managed to spoil Jamaica Inn , the Daphne De Maurier classic . Maybe I'm just getting more grumpy !
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Duchesse! Why do people think they can monkey around with poems at will? Perhaps because they don't know how hard it is to write one. As W.B Yeats said in one of my favorite's, "Adam's Curse,"

"For to articulate sweet sounds together/ is to work harder than all these, and yet/ be thought an idler by the noisy set/ of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen/ the martyrs call the world"

A poem or song is always open to interpretation. Part of what makes the great ones, like this song, great is that they can mean different things to different people. But re-writing is NOT interpretation. It is violation.

Thanks, too, for the links to the remarkable K.D. Laing and others. I would add Rufus Wainwright who, with his strange reedy voice, sings it like a lost boy.

Anonymous said…
Like LPC I too turned it off, quel culôt!

Duchesse said…
hostess: I am not sure his behaviour was shameful as much as just unaware.

Susan: Few of us have the talent to write original music for a humourous or sentimental private occasion, so I could live with that. I've participated in a few nutty "Talent Nights" where we did just that.

June: You do not have to feel one way or another about the song to consider that the performance was an appropriation of an artist's work which significantly distorted its tone, intent and message.

materfamilias: I would not defend him but •hope• for the sake of his ministry he was simply thoughtless.

Araminta: Some texts are tampered with in the name of inclusion, and I too wish they were not. But that was not the intent here; it was to appropriate the melody and use it to commemorate an occasion, in the most banal way possible.

Northmoon: Disney is (usually) not appropriating the work of a living renowned artist, much as I dislike that too. Litigation, a punitive approach, may not be Cohen's philosophical cup of tea; however, he has said in interviews that he has not been vigilant enough about the use of his work by others.

Wendy: Thanks; part of it is that Cohen's work does mean a lot to me. However, I also in principle do not like the appropriation of an artist's work.

C.: There are many interpretations of the song but with the exception of Il Divo's version in Italian) I cannot find another example of revised lyrics.

Leonard Cohen said in an interview I read to write this post that the song was incredibly difficult to write; he said, "And I remember being on the floor, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.'"

LPC and Constance: The issue is not the song itself but the violation of artistic integrity, an issue more far-reaching than a single song.

All: A book by Alan Light has just come out on the song, Alan Light, "The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley And The Unlikely Ascent Of Hallelujah".

Here is a nice little clip from the BBC in which the author comments:

I agree with your dismay about the utterly banal set of lyrics the priest came up with as well as the issue of appropriation. To completely change the meaning of the song, making it pablum is a shameful thing to do. Cohen's original is a very powerful moving piece and the rewrite dumbs it down to a trite pretty piece of fluff. I've seen another Christian revision of the song where the singer claims that she paid and received a license to perform and record it - which seems like more than the priest bothered to do. First time commenting here although I've been reading you for a while. As a (visual) artist the issue of appropriating someone's work hit a nerve!
Duchesse said…
leslie: Thank you for commenting; an artist's take is especially valuable to me, as I am not one. Somehow I am dubious about that claim, as the Cohen quote about "administrating his territory" seems to suggest a different value.

Fr. Kelly was using lyrics written by a young woman (now 14.. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that, at 10, she never thought of such issues.
Nancy said…
I am with the group who thinks it was a lovely sentiment and it seems that the bride and groom were quite pleased. Many singer have changed lyrics to suit an occasion - Candle in the Wind being just one. I realize the changes were made by the one who wrote the song initially, but the changes were well received for Princess Diana. Being Catholic, of Irish descent and horribly sentimental and romatic, I truly feel this was a lovely thing to do and I somehow feel Mr. Cohen would not have been upset. Just my 2 cents, probably not even worth that.
Unknown said…
Changing lyrics to fit an occasion is one thing, but in this case, where Cohen is wrestling with demons and creating a personal religion, having a minister twist the words into treacley pap seems ironically sacrilege. Amen, Duchesse and thanks for the clip-- amazing how at my age, and his, my heart is all arace.
Duchesse said…
Nancy: That an audience is pleased with the performance does not justify the hijacking of the lyrics to the point where the original meaning is lost. You have identified an essential difference between "Candle in the Wind" and this version of "Hallelujah": that Elton John himself changed the lyrics (and reaped enormous financial and reputational benefit.)

I find various commenters' judgment that Cohen would not be upset to be presumptive, as his permission was not sought.

Neither faith or ethnicity justify taking an artist's chef d'oeuvre and rendering it unrecognizable save for the melody.
Duchesse said…
Unknown: I agree it's treacly pap, but the lyrics were written by a 10 year old (at the time) girl, not the priest.

I would gave a lot to hear him sing the actual verse:
"Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah"

Silverpat said…
I thought it was very sweet and heartfelt. What is the big deal? I'm surprised at the depth of criticism
Madame Là-bas said…
The imagery of Leonard's song is so different from the syrupy version. There is sensuality and violence and gentleness altogether in Cohen;s work. This version is just silly.
Duchesse, not a "living writer", but the Disneyfied version - and happy ending - of Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (the Hunchback) is a travesty in terms of teaching children about not only literature, but history.

Hugo descendants speak out: http://tinyurl.com/HugoHunchback1

Duchesse said…
Silverpat: Are concepts like artistic integrity and right of ownership to one's creative products not meaningful for you?

It is disrespectful and unjust to take one person's work (without permission) and alter the tone so that it in pubic performance it delivers an entirely different message, regardless of whether you find the altered song "sweet".

Mme: Yes it is a travesty. And, whether the revision is sweet or stomach-turning (depending on your aesthetics, the act itself is a transgression against the artist.

lagatts: There are many, many examples of appropriation and revision out there; artists now dead or whose copyright protection has lapsed are especially prone to such raiding.

Duchesse said…
All: Further to several "what's the big deal, you should chill"-type comments: the Kelly video has gone viral.

I'm guessing couples in many locales think this version is "sweet" and are asking for its inclusion at their weddings.

The ability of YouTube to disseminate such material changes my level of concern.

Anonymous said…
I enjoyed every bit of him singing
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: As I have said, what one enjoys is a matter of taste; however, personal taste does not justify the appropriation and extensive alteration of an artist's work for public performance by another person.
Mardel said…
I tend to agree with you, and even though I, like LPC, just turned the song off, I was upset as to me the weight of the original song remained in the tune despite the banal lyrics. I have no trouble with impromptu jiggering of words in private, at home, I did it as a child, when I perhaps knew no better. But in public, without permission…. no. We have no idea what Mr. Cohen thinks and no right to decide what he should feel. I am a firm believer in supporting the rights of artists and the integrity of art. I am also concerned about the rights of musicians, even those still living and under copyright, as music is so widely heard, and available, even more so with the advent of streaming and free downloads, that I believe people take it for granted, with no thoughts to the rights of the artists, or in fact their right to make some kind of living from their work… I must stop or I shall go on and on.
diverchic said…
I have reviewed the evidence presented. None of the singers compare to Leonard Cohen in power, fullness of emotion, sexual energy or commitment. The artists, however, make honest efforts to portray the beauty of the poem and one suspects that they may actually understand what they are singing. Father Kelly, however, is not honest. He not only steals the music but his performance is self aggrandizing and is all about him, not about the young couple as others have suggested. Perhaps he never in his life had a Hallelujah experience that he was willing to share. He should apologize.
Duchesse said…
diverchic: it's the exceptional performer who can match Cohen's interpretation of his own work. However Father Kelly doesn't have a chance, as the song's power and complexity was gutted by the insipid lyrics.

Cohen said, in an interview, "If you're going to think of yourself in this game, or in this tradition, and you start getting a swelled head about it, then you've really got to think about who you're talking about. You're not just talking about Randy Newman, who's fine, or Bob Dylan, who's sublime, you're talking about King David, Homer, Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, you're talking about the embodiment of our highest possibility. So I don't think it's particularly modest or virtuous to think of oneself as a minor poet."

Father Kelly does not seem aware of that tradition when he chose to use rewritten lyrics.
Anonymous said…
I have many conservative Christian friends who are not aware of the original version. They've only heard the rewritten version(s) -- there are many out there which have gone viral. That is what concerns me: that people are being introduced to this beautiful tune without awareness of the actual emotions and experiences that it was intended to express.
Duchesse said…
bettina: If "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery", as the English cleric Charles Caleb Colton said, appropriation is the sincerest form of theft.
lillyanne said…
I completely and absolutely agree. Well said!
Anonymous said…
I doubt you will voice such objection if the priest was a Muslim cleric or some other clergy in some other faith.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous @ 12:24: It matters not to me the faith of the person who is performing an appropriated work. Why do you think it does?

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