“Hallelujah”: Duke Faculty Pay Tribute to Leonard Cohen

Thursday, December 18, 2014

by Bethany Yankie-Bush

It is 6:55pm, and a crowd murmurs expectantly in the back hallway of the Langford Building, swelling towards the door to the Alumni Memorial Commons Room. Guests in shawls and colored chinos pour dark wine into plastic cups as the chords to “Sisters of Mercy” ripple from the open doorway. A short, grey-haired woman in a track suit scurries right and left, querying, “I’m not missing it, am I? It’s my favorite song. My favorite song.”

These some hundred and twenty have gathered to attend the event “‘Hallelujah’: The Poetry and Music of Leonard Cohen,” Dr. Shalom Goldman’s collaboration with Duke Divinity School examining the artist’s life and creative work. 

Now in its third year, Goldman’s series of presentations on rock legends and religion has received a consistently enthusiastic response. Goldman’s events weave a narrative-style lecture together with video clips of performances and live renditions of each artist’s songs, thus managing to marry the work of documentary to a concert experience. In the past, the series has featured the work of both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

 “In the late 1960s, when I was in my twenties, I lived in downtown Manhattan and was a huge music fan,” Goldman recounts of his personal connection to the project. “I heard Leonard Cohen and many other great singer-songwriters perform a number of times.”

In this year’s “Hallelujah,” Goldman’s episodic lecture covered Cohen’s religious formation, his most famous concerts, and even relayed memories of personal encounters with the artist. Goldman’s selection of accompanying songs and poems showcased the religious themes in Cohen’s writing to highlight a unique spiritual and artistic trajectory.

The set list, which began with “Bird On The Wire” and featured Cohen favorites like “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” and “Sisters Of Mercy,” offered fresh arrangements of Cohen’s compositions, played by a collection of Duke Divinity School professors, students, and friends of Goldman.

Assembled by Dean Richard Hays, the “Divinity Ramblers Band” included amateur musicians Dr. Anathea Portier-Young on vocals, Dr. Kate Bowler on vocals and cello, Dr. Joel Marcus on vocals and guitar, student Nick Funk on bass, and Hays himself on vocals and guitar. The band also featured veteran Georgia folk singer Lisa Deaton, a long-time friend of Goldman’s and the series’ mainstay performer.

Hays, who has participated musically in Shalom’s past two presentations, attests to the spontaneity of the creative process in arranging Cohen’s music for this year’s event: “There were no written arrangements. We were jamming. We’re all people who play by ear. We went online, found the guitar chords, and sat down together. We had two rehearsals.”

The “folk process,” as Hays calls it, was enhanced by Goldman’s willingness to contribute creative input to the music of the event. According to Hays, Goldman attended both band rehearsals, though he did not perform any music himself.

This same folksy spontaneity proved a consistent characteristic of the night, as the audience’s impromptu reaction to the band’s rendition of the title song revealed. A connection to Cohen’s primal “gravitas,” as Goldman had described it earlier in the lecture, showed poignantly when all in the room, clearly moved, joined together to sing a rousing chorus of “Hallelujah.”

Reflecting on Cohen’s cultural legacy today, Goldman attests, “[Cohen’s] songs…speak to people's deepest spiritual and erotic emotions, urges, needs.”

The complete presentation can be found below.