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Hallelujah! The remarkable story behind this joyful word

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

"Even if you don't notice that it's gone, I know the feeling on Easter morning when all of a sudden you are singing it again," Rathey said. "It's almost like a beautiful dress that you get out for celebration on Easter morning." (In fact, Handel's "Messiah," composed in 1741, was originally intended for Easter week.)

There is no set time that the word is sung (or not sung) in the nondenominational church that Deborah Smith Pollard attends in Michigan, but she said it shows up when the spirit, emotion and joy begin to crescendo.

"When the praises are so high, somebody is saying hallelujah," said the professor who studies gospel music at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. "Maybe it's pastor, or maybe it's somebody in the choir singing it. All of a sudden, you might see members of the audience singing or saying hallelujah."

Smith Pollard also sees the word being used outside the church. She is also a radio host, and for the last 12 years she's hosted an annual gospel concert and fundraiser put on by DTE Energy, which provides heat for many people in the Detroit area. The event is called "Hallelujah for Heat."

Smith Pollard thought it was a cute name for when she first heard it. Then her furnace broke down in a cold Detroit winter.

"When we got it working again, the first thing I said was, 'Hallelujah!'" she said. "You immediately go: Praise God, I've got heat again!"

"You don't have to be in the church, or a Christian, or tied to the Jewish community to use that word," she said. "Hallelujah shows up in the community."

 

It shows up in Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her So," where the singer uses it to implicitly thank the divine for bringing the woman next door into his life. Hip-hop artists like Chief Keef and Logic have titled songs "Hallelujah" as they celebrate their own success. Recently, the L.A.-based band Haim released a Fleetwood Mac-inspired song in which the word serves as a way to acknowledge the blessing of having friends and family help them through life's challenges.

But by far the most popular and famous use of hallelujah in popular music is Leonard Cohen's haunting and frequently covered "Hallelujah," written in 1984.

The song does not rely on biblical quotations, but it does make use of biblical stories: It's about David, who consorts with Bathsheba, and orchestrates her husband's death so he can marry her. And it's about Samson, who, instead of saving his people from a hostile army, runs off with Delilah, who cuts his hair, leaving him powerless.

But ultimately, the song is about all of us — our failings, our imperfections, and our desire to have a relationship with the unknowable divine, said Marcia Polly, author of "From This Broken Hill: God, Sex and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen."

"He articulates in the song what we know about ourselves," she said. "It's about our relationship with the transcendent and with other people, how we breach those relationships, and sever them, and yet still we have to come back to hallelujah."

Amen. (But that's another story.)

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