"Hallelujah" 10 Ways

"Hallelujah" is a song written by Leonard Cohen in 1984, and never officially released as a single. It has become famous mainly through cover versions, and has been recorded by hundreds of artists. In 2008, American Idol contestent Jason Castro sang a version that caused Jeff Buckley's famous cover to rocket to the top of the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart (you know, the kids these days with their iTunes and what-not). Buckley's rendition became a Platinum single on April 22, 2008, eleven years after his death and fourteen years after its original release -- despite never being officially released as a single.

"Hallelujah" has appeared in endless TV shows and movies. According to Wikipedia, it has appeared in: The West Wing, Crossing Jordan, Without a Trace, The O.C., Scrubs, House, Criminal Minds, ER, Third Watch, Ugly Betty, and LAX; and the films Feast of Love, The Edukators, Vinterkyss and Lord of War. I also happen to know it popped up in The Watchmen, The L Word, Shrek, and probably many more. This song is everywhere.

Here are ten of the best-known versions of the song. There are actually so many "well-known" covers of "Hallelujah" that I couldn't include them all in a top 10 -- go search YouTube for more. (One very notable version is the one by Espen Lind featuring Kurt Nilsen, Alejandro Fuentes and Askil Holm, which cannot be embedded.)

1. Jeff Buckley (Live in Studio)

Although this version differs a little from his famous album version (it has a longer intro), Jeff Buckley's is the most famous cover of "Hallelujah." It was inspired by John Cale's version (#4 below) and was released on Buckley's album "Grace" in 1994.

2. Rufus Wainwright

Wainwright's version is nearly as famous as Buckley's, because it appeared on the Shrek soundtrack (despite John Cale's version actually being used in the film). Wainwright's album version is actually my favorite version of the song. Another notable Wainwright performance is from the Leonard Cohen documentary "I'm Your Man," and includes vocals from Joan Wasser (Buckley's girlfriend) and Martha Wainwright.

3. k.d lang

It's not news that k.d. lang can really, really sing. But still, her vocal control in this live version is stunning. The last note goes on forever, and the video includes nearly a full minute of standing ovation. If this doesn't make you cry, I don't know what will.

4. John Cale

John Cale is credited for popularizing Cohen's song with his early cover. This arrangement seemed really weird to me until I listened to it several times. Watch John Cale and a string quartet perform the classic song in 1992.

5. Sheryl Crow

Crow speeds it up a bit, and her guitar treatment is different than most -- she capos on the first fret. Wicked. (For guitar nerds, most versions are performed capo'd at the 5th fret and played in "G", thus sung in the key of C.)

6. Allison Crowe

Crowe's album "Tidings" featured songs recorded in a single take. Here's one of them.

7. Damien Rice

Performed in 2008, at Leonard Cohen's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Also interesting to see that he's playing capo'd at the third fret. See a more emotional/quiet version from Rice here.

8. Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris

Part of the "Hope for Haiti Now" benefit in January, 2010. Sorry about the weird popup YouTube thingies embedded here -- don't click them -- but this version actually has the best sound of any on YouTube.

9. Regina Spektor

Live in 2005, with phrasing more like Cohen's than most covers. Audio only.

10. Leonard Cohen

Of course, Leonard Cohen actually wrote the song in the first place. Check out that last verse. Cohen reportedly said of the song: "I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view.... It's the notion that there is no perfection -- that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say 'hallelujah' under those circumstances."

A Note for Non-Musicians

The lyrics "it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift" refer to the chord progression of the song itself as those lyrics are sung. Although the verse is about King David, the lyrics now seem like Cohen is winking at the listener -- teaching future generations with his own lyrics in the first verse how to cover his song. The chords to this bit are: C, F (the fourth), G (the fifth), A minor (the minor fall), and F (the major lift).

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10. To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

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The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
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Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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