One of the standards of old age is said to be walking into a room and trying to remember what it was you wanted from that room. However, while you are there you see other things of interest, and before you remember the original errand, you are on another thought tangent entirely. Last week’s column went to the printer without the third song I was trying to remember that also had part of its origin in the cotton fields of the American south. Since that song had no specific Easter connection, my mind put it aside until the final quotation from the Easter Sunday sermon happened to be the final verse of the hymn that had been on the edge of my mind. In the meantime, I heard a familiar tune with Easter words and set out to research that song never realizing there could be a connection between the two hymns.
If you are at all familiar with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, even the first few notes of the introduction will have you singing or humming along. Cohen claimed it took him five years to write the original version which had something like 70 to 80 verses—too long for a record so mostly jotted down in one of the several poetry books he wrote. In 1984 he recorded a shorter version of his “Hallelujah” song based on his heritage in Montreal’s Jewish community where he had studied at a synagogue school which leaned heavily into Old Testament stories and theology. As a teenager he became part of a group known as the Buckskin Boys, who sang country western songs in coffee houses and bars. His goal was to be a poet and musician, so he went on to Montreal’s McGill University for college. One story says he went there to learn English since Montreal is a French-speaking city but apparently spent his time studying English and Canadian poets and in the process, learned his future craft.
One of the Canadian poets who influenced Cohen was Col. John McCrae from Guelph, Ontario, a young man who had served as a physician in World War I and was at a disastrous battle in Belgium in 1915 when a close friend died. McCrae wrote a poem which he read at the battlefield funeral. Without copy machines he made handwritten copies for friends on available scraps of paper resulting in slightly different versions. The poem, titled “In Flanders Field”, is now considered one of the national treasures of both Belgium and Canada and is read in many countries on Memorial and Remembrance Days. The person you may hear reading this poem is often Leonard Cohen whose deep growly voice seemed to perfectly match the words. Cohen never had a chance to meet McCrae in person because the military doctor died of pneumonia in 1918 during the pandemic of that generation.
Now, back to “Hallelujah” with a Christmas version sung by Bryan Hanson for a Northern Lights production a few years ago with Lisa Schuler at the piano. Poppler’s was happy to send a copy of the sheet music which the pastor wanted to use at Christmas, but the music was too difficult for me. When practicing, the singers listened over and over to youtube versions of the song. Lisa shared another piano version of the music, and I am not sure any of the people involved caught the name of Jeff Buckley at the bottom of those sheets. It took a few years to realize that what some called strange lyrics in the Christmas version (the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift) may well have been part of the piano stylings of Buckley who may have helped score the music. Fortunately, Judy Kram and Bob Tapson accompanied the singers at our church when the song was performed. Despairing of ever mastering more than a rough version of the Hallelujahs, I passed the music packet on to a young and coming musician who may have forgotten she even has it. However, a fondness for the music remains.
Following graduation from McGill, Cohen went on to Columbia in New York and soon was part of a folk music/protest/long-haired group in “the village”. Many of the original members became famous and some infamous over the years with both genders exhibiting an aversion to barber shops. They wrote songs of protest, songs adapted from other lands, made records, became homeless, and some are still around today. Other names readers may recognize included Peter, Paul, and Mary; the New Christy Minstrels; Bob Dylan; Joni Mitchell; the McGarrigle Sisters; the Wainwrights; Buffy St. Marie; Woody Guthrie; Judy Collins; Janis Joplin; Simon and Garfunkel; and many others. Songs they wrote or recorded were and still are on radio and television for many occasions.
In 1984, a young teenager from Prince Edward Island named Kelley Mooney heard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” when she was making one of her first records, and the melody stayed with her as she wrote love songs for her own recording career and the careers of others. Mooney is of Irish heritage and, to the best of my knowledge, not related to the Mooney family who lived at Langdon in the early years. Through Canadian and American recording companies she “covered” some of the songs of other artists and in 2011 wrote the words to “Easter Hallelujah” recording it with the Jeff Buckley piano additions and we suspect permission from Leonard Cohen. Her version uses New Testament words and is particularly meaningful at this time of year. There are other versions on the internet, but the loveliest in my opinion is one done by two sisters from Ontario who give credit to Cohen, Mooney, and Buckley for their work. Their version is on youtube. The story would have been most appropriate for the third Easter music song, but I had not heard the Easter version when writing that column.
Regular listeners to Randy Bachmann’s Vinyl Tap will be familiar with all the artists mentioned who have Canadian roots, so when any of them earn special honors, Bachmann does a program about their work along with stories of their lives. As a result, there was more than one program about Leonard Cohen and others from the folk singer era before his death in 2016. As it happened, Cohen died on November 10 of that year, and anyone tuning in to the CBC was greeted with hourly renditions of him reading “In Flanders Field” for Remembrance Day on November 11 of that year. The reading had been pre-arranged for the holiday. The network had not planned that the death of Cohen would be the leading headline on that date.
The third song, with a history of being sung in the cotton fields of the south, was “Amazing Grace”, and since it is sung in churches of all denominations today, most may think that has always been the case. The familiar hymn was written by John Newton, an English sailor, after a very frightening storm at sea on March 9, 1748. Newton had a troubled early life and went to sea as a very young boy after the death of his mother. He was rebellious and often fired from ships on which he worked, only to be hired by another captain who needed a sailor for the lucrative slave trade. At one point, imprisoned in the hold of a ship, he read Thomas a Kempis’ book “Imitation of Christ” which reminded him of the teachings of his mother. When facing death in the storm of 1748 on a journey from Africa to Scotland, he felt a miracle happened in his life. He became a Christian and later a pastor. Leaving the slave trade behind, he began writing hymns for his congregation, and one that was written was titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation”.
That title was not very catchy, and the song did not appear in many hymnals for over 200 years! However, missionaries working with Native Americans learned this song from the people they were meeting on mission fields who in turn had heard the song sung by slaves before the U.S. government had relocated their tribes to distant reservations. Slaves in the south sang the song to a tune that seemed to fit the words as they toiled in the fields. That tune is today called “American Traditional”. With the boom of folk singing in the 1960s and 1970s, a song with that background was perfect as an American folk song. In fact, so perfect that a girl named Judy Collins living in “the village” in New York recorded it. Her song shot up to the top of both sacred and pop songs. Musicians searched old hymnals, traced the song’s origin, and quickly added it to their hymnals. Today it is the worldwide favorite we know as “Amazing Grace” sung in many languages and perfect for many occasions.