Saturday, September 6, 2014

Very Popular Songs

There are pop songs, like the latest by Beyonce or Katy Perry, and then there are popular songs, ones that seem to last and last, like "Hotel California" by the Eagles. And then there are very popular songs, ones that seem to capture something beyond the moment and that are covered by a lot of artists other than the original ones. The two songs that I can think of that fall into this category are "Yesterday" by Paul McCartney and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. There have been over 2500 covers of "Yesterday" and a whole bunch of "Hallelujah". In this lengthy article on Leonard Cohen, Norman Lebrecht makes the claim that "in one generation, "Hallelujah" went from oblivion to the most covered lyric of modern times." Here is the context:
Cohen issued Various Positions on a fringe label, where it sold in dribs and drabs. Reputationally, he was on the skids, reduced to appearing in the TV cop series Miami Vice. Dylan admired one of his new songs and ground it out on tour, but "Hallelujah" went virtually unacknowledged until first John Cale, then Jeff Buckley, interpreted the song on record, secularising the message, taking it far from Cohen's Biblical-erotic fantasy to a steelier, mass-marketed utility. Buckley's early death endowed "Hallelujah" with tragic grandeur. DreamWorks soundtracked it on Shrek. It was warbled on television talent shows. In one generation, "Hallelujah" went from oblivion to the most covered lyric of modern times
I don't know if this is true, or what the source is, but it is certainly the case that "Hallelujah" seems to be one of those rare songs that transcends its genre. Here are some different versions of the song. First the original studio recording by Leonard Cohen:

An early cover by John Cale:

One by Jeff Buckley that got a lot of attention:

Here is K. D. Lang:

Allison Crowe:

Bon Jovi:

And a live version by the master himself:

Yep, that's quite a song.


Adrian said...

The Leonard Cohen Files now lists 567 different recordings of this Leonard Cohen's masterwork:

That's fewer covers than numerous songs in pop, rock, folk, jazz and other canons - including several tunes by The Beatles, as you've noted "Yesterday", or, another example, "Both Sides Now", by Joni Mitchell (which has been covered nearly 1000 times to date - ).

That sort of knowledge is relevant if you're in a pub quiz.

When it’s the music that matters most – it’s a plain that "Hallelujah" is a most beautiful song and is a globally-loved standard – moving countless people in all its forms.

As you say, it's transcendent!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the info, Adrian. I thought that Norman Lebrecht's assertion was incorrect.