Best Song Ever Written by a Canadian

L CohenHallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.

I recently heard this song in the film Saint Ralph (sung by Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip). A few days ago I saw a live performance of it sung by a women who I believe might be an opera singer (she could really belt it out). And in both instances, the audience seemed to slip into a state of awe.

So I went home and tried to play the song on my cheap, always-out-tune classical guitar. Once I got the tune right, I wrote out all the lyrics and gave it a go. I discovered that even when played badly, it’s an impressive tune. That’s what I call a good song. Try it yourself and see what happens…

UPDATE (Sept. 19/06): Darren Barefoot recently wrote about this song and pointed me to this site where you can listen to 33 different versions of the song.

    Now I’ve {G} heard there was a {Em} secret chord
    That {G} David played, and it {Em} pleased the Lord
    But {C} you don’t really {D} care for music, {G} do ya? {D}
    It {G} goes like this: the {C} fourth, the {D} fifth
    The {Em} minor fall, the {C} major {D} lift
    The {D} baffled king composing Halle{Em}lujah

    Halle{C}lujah, Halle{Em}lujah, Halle{C}lujah, Halle{G}lu{D}u{G}jah

    Your {G} faith was strong but you {Em} needed proof
    You {G} saw her bathing {Em} on the roof
    Her {C} beauty and the {D} moonlight over{G}threw ya {D}
    She {G} tied you to a {C} kitchen {D} chair
    She {Em} broke your throne, and she {C} cut your {D} hair
    And {D} from your lips she drew the Halle{Em}lujah

    Halle{C}lujah, Halle{Em}lujah, Halle{C}lujah, Halle{G}lu{D}u{G}jah

    You {G} say I took the {Em} name in vain
    {G} I don’t even {Em} know the name
    But {C} if I did, well {D} really, what’s it {G} to ya? {D}
    There’s a {G} blaze of light in {C} every {D} word
    It {Em} doesn’t matter {C} which you {D} heard
    The {D} holy or the broken Halle{Em}lujah

    Halle{C}lujah, Halle{Em}lujah, Halle{C}lujah, Halle{G}lu{D}u{G}jah

    I {G} did my best, it {Em} wasn’t much
    I {G} couldn’t feel, so I {Em} tried to touch
    I’ve {C} told the truth, I {D} didn’t come to {G} fool ya {D}
    {G} And even though it {C} all went {D} wrong
    I’ll {Em} stand before the {C} Lord of {D} Song
    With {D} nothing on my tongue but Halle{Em}lujah

    Halle{C}lujah, Halle{Em}lujah, Halle{C}lujah, Halle{G}lu{D}u{G}jah…

Note: The D at the end of each verse seems to hang, beginning with: “The {D} baffled king composing Halle{Em}lujah.” From what I can tell, there’s no chord between the D and the Em. Definitely what you’d call a dramatic pause. It does the job. And sorry I couldn’t post a recording of the song as a guide, but if you already know the song, you shouldn’t have any trouble following my transcription. Enjoy.

About Phillip

Phillip Cairns is a beekeeper in St. John's, Newfoundland, who writes about beekeeping at mudsongs.org.

24 Replies to “Best Song Ever Written by a Canadian”

  1. I hear this tune a lot on CBC, but I don’t think I’ve heard Cohen himself singing it. I did a search for covers of it and found this list that states Jeff Buckley’s version is “Best Cohen cover. Maybe best cover. Spooky. Romantic. Angelic. Ghostly. Beautiful.”

    Who the hell is Jeff Buckley?

  2. Jeff Buckley? Never heard of him. Someone over at J-Walk’s Blog picked L. Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” as the best. Good pick. Someone else chose some Stan Rogers. For Stan, I’d choose one of his most overlooked songs, “The Jeannie C.” That is one hard song to listen to, though I suppose a bit much of downer side.

    I also said best song ever WRITTEN, not necessarily the best song recorded by a Canadian. A good record and a good song are not always the same thing. I’ve heard Cohen’s recording of “Hallelujah” maybe five times in my life, and I have no desire to own a copy of that particular recording. But despite the non-so-great production on that recording, you can tell it’s still a good song. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s such a good song, it’s difficult to ruin it.

  3. Jeff Buckley was a folksy-rock musician, and was the son of 60’s folk artist Lord Buckley. He died a few years ago in a drowning accident – it might have been accidental, but I’ve also heard suggestions that it was suicide. I’m not sure which.

    Buckley’s version is haunting, like he’s just clinging to sanity. I downloaded it after I heard Rufus Wainwright’s “Memphis Skyline” which is an ode to Buckley and mentions Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”.

    Wainwright’s version is stellar as well. Except his is not the version *in* Shrek – Cale’s version is in the movie, while Wainwright’s is on the soundtrack. I’m not sure why the switch.

    Also – check out k.d.lang’s version – very torchy and mellow.

    (My $0.02 worth – the James cover of “So Long Maryanne” is wicked, and Ian McCulloch’s version of “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” is also memorable.)

    Speaking of the CBC – when they did the top 50 Canadian songs of all times this past spring (was it?) someone made the comment that Leonard Cohen covers are inevitably better than the originals because he has such a leaden voice.

  4. Well, Rebecca, I’m trying to respond to specific things mentioned in your comment, but because the messages appears BACKWARDS now, I can’t even see it. So let’s what damage I do here from memory…

    (By the way, thanks for the Townes link. I read it and posted a comment there, and apparently got a few hits to SWT because of it. Wee-hee!! Anyway.)

    The other night I saw “Hallelujah” sung by a women in a ‘musical revue’ show called CANADA ROCKS here in Charolottetown (I had free tickets). It’s more or less a greatest hits show of Canadian music. Most of the show was entertaining, the music was good, and the second half of the show was a bore. But during the first half, along with playing bits and pieces of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell a bunch of other stuff, they would occasionally play a full song. I could have done without the Guess Who and Randy Bachman stuff which is so often touted as Canadian I can’t stand it. But anyhow, in the middle of the first act, this woman came out and sang “Hallelujah,” and the audience of however many thousand people went silent. It was so goddam moving and dramatic I nearly lost it. I looked over at Jenny afterwards with an expression that said, “Holy shit.” And it reminded me of all the times I’ve heard that song, and how frigging good it sounds every time. I’ve heard people cover songs by the Band and Joni Mitchell, etc., but they usually fall short. But “Hallelujah” moves me every time I hear it, no matter who’s singing it. You said Jeff Buckley’s version is haunting, like he’s barely holding onto his sanity. I think of lot of that is built in to the song; I’ve felt the same thing from many of the performers I’ve heard play this song. The woman who sang it the other night, Christ, I thought she was going to have a breakdown up there on the stage. I suppose it was more effective because I could see her expressions, her body movements, and the goddam lighting, and orchestra and the band plahying softly behind here in the dark. Jesus, what a moment.

    Anyway, I was convinced then this is one of the best songs written by a Canadian I’ve ever heard, because it’s almost always amazing not matter who sings it.

    I can’t remember what else you said, so that’s it for now.

  5. For Phillip I’ll move the comment form to the top of the page, right above the most recent comment. I’ll do it tonight or this weekend.

  6. thankyou ….but hey dont spend too much time ride ride ride….hey I just got back had to clear my head…henry stuff….how long did phil live with you guys and hey phil what are you doing in potato land..???

  7. Phillip lived with us off and on while in Newfoundland and sometimes stayed with us for extended vacations, but he and I lived together for a couple of years while in Montreal and Toronto.

    Tom the former teacher and turkey killer: I think that Ontario air is turning you into an illiterate.

  8. Phillip – I’m not a fan of the Tragically Hip, mostly because Gord Downie’s voice irritates me. But I think I’d like hearing him cover “Hallelujah” I’ve never seen it done live, but from what you described, it must have been breathtaking.

    Tommyboy – I hear you go around dressed up like a fish. Do you really miss the East Coast that much? :)

  9. I’m not a fan of the Tragically Hip either. Although I can appreciate certain albums like FULLY COMPLETELY, and the intelligence of Gord Downie’s lyrics, it’s not the kind of music I need to own or listen to too often. And their fanbase seems to consist mostly of yahoos. However, I heard Gord Downie sing Rush’s “Limelight” once, and it was amazing. He has a lot of range. He does covers well.

  10. u r rigtht jode ar hre bad money good…no reed orr ….no I m just a lazy typer and checker…whenever that spell check comes on i just speed click the ignore..the fact that I am even communicating in this medium suprises me…I still write..when I do with…gasp..a pen,pencil and paper…

    rebecca…ah..yeah..Immm..well..yeah my wife was not supposed to take pictures of that..its all about lubrication..you know fish oil…

    No No No we have an annual fish fry at the market and a number of years ago I mentioned in passing to one of the customers that I needed a fish head or something drum up support for the event…yeah well she made a fish head…so now I wear it for a number of weeks prior to the event…we also entertain a liver and onion event but no costume yet for that…

    yes i miss the east coast greatly and often i believe that it is just nostalgia now …but people here have subtle nuances in the way they approach life…the easist example is the dropping by to visit…here one must call, make an appointment, let us know you are coming…what! who cares if I m eating and you come by..if yoour hungry eat, if not come on up until im done..if Im going out…im still going but i ll talk to ya when I get back..its just strange..and the standard of living here is huge…but anyway nova scotia is slowy being purchased by people from here who then tell me how nice and quaint it is…there was an article in fortune magazine listing the north shore of nova scotia as a great real estate investment…I m going to have to move back to labrador…

    seriously if I had not fell into this market job..which cannot be replicated…I probably would now be divorced (steph does not have similar attachment to home)and doing some mundane job in little upper rubber boot…as jody has alluded I have had a variety of occupations..and would find something to do…..

    hey anyone who would wear a fish head must love their job…

  11. What the hell’s all this got to do with Leonard Cohen?

    I was going to post the alternate lyrics to the sound, but my internet connection has finally bit the dust, and I doubt it’s coming back any time soon. I may not have regular internet access until October or November. Which doens’t bother me, except I might end up missing the Danny Schmidt house concert at Whole Wheat Radio on Sept. 17. I know. I go visit my brother that weekend.

    Anyway, that is it for me again. This time for good.

    So long,

    Phillip

  12. Well i was searhing the song for the covers lol.

    I am a fan of LC. But i must say that jeffs’s is the best(so many reasons).Rufus’s fit the movie “Shreck”(hope spelled it right) and good.Also downie version fits the movie “Saint Ralph” (just listened it a few minutes ago again).

    What i dont like is about the lyrics.LC’s+jeff’s and combinations.It would be great if they follow the original in their covers. Ok i know it was agreed at jeff’s.

    PS: I also listened to the lady’s version “Allison crowe” nice but over passioned.
    PS2:Sorry eng is not my native.

  13. Hallelujah is certainly one of the greatest popular songs ever written. Someone else has said that Allison Crowe’s cover is emotional without being sentimental. I agree. It’s my favorite cover version. But I also agree that many versions are moving. It’s just a great, great, song!

  14. Hey. Do you happen to have a copy of Downie’s version of ‘Hallelujah’? I surfed past the movie last night and stopped cold when I heard it.

  15. I love that song so so much. The movie was so so good too. I saw it down in the USA -it was billed as a foreign film. My American girlfriend took me to see it not knowing it was Canadian or anything and at the time I was super home sick. At the end I was tearing up hard. She helped me out a lot by bringing me to this great movie. What a Great Flick and great sound track too. The song by Blue Rodeo was good, too. I like to get the song Hallelujah sung by Gordon Dowie. Does someone know where I can get the song??

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