What do you think about changing words to songs?
There are broadly two schools of thought:
(1) the song is out there and offered to the community; it is available to be translated into other languages; it is also therefore available to translated into other cultures; but what about changing ALL the words to a song?
(2) the song is a piece of work belonging to the writer and its integrity and intent cannot be compromised.
Read on, while you listen to this complete re-working of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
I have a big problem with the second position – and I say that as a songwriter. How far does this “integrity” stretch? Logically it means there could never be, for instance, reggae, jazz, or instrumental versions of a particular song; there could never be alternative arrangements. Yet this flies in the face of the whole way in which music evolves.
I also have a problem theologically. The Bible was not dictated, but written in collaboration with the communities God inspired. Consistent with that is the fact that it continues to be not only verbally, but also culturally translatable today. So to make the Bible understood to new cultures fully and faithfully, words and phrases must be used that simply are not there in the original texts.
So, in our church, we often translate the words of ancient hymns to a more contemporary idiom. And we sometimes meddle with modern songs to make them more inclusive.
How about changing the meaning?
In v.3 of Reginald Heber’s great hymn “Holy Holy Holy” we have the line: “Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;” I can see what the writer is getting at from a Deist, Old Testament point of view, but it is completely contradicted by the New Testament revelation of Christ – of whom John writes, “and we have seen his glory.” In our church, we therefore sing, “Through your grace with sinful eye, your glory we have seen.” It’s slightly cumbersome, but I was trying express the wonderful truth of the gospel whilst retaining a nod to the words of the original.
Reginald Heber is no longer with us to take issue with me. But Stuart Townend, I believe, does take issue with people who change “For on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was satisfied.” I can see why he may find this annoying because a different theological point is being made in his name. Yet changing that one word is making the song singable in a different Christian culture. The song has been culturally translated. And the change is not incompatible with the original intent.
Ian Smale (Ishamel) apparently tried to stop people changing the words of one of his songs from “now I am your son” to “now I am your child”. Yet surely this kind of inclusion is all about cultural translation.
Such translations (or are they adulterations?) can be noted by citing the songwriter as “Stuart Townend – adapted”. Whilst this doesn’t specifically highlight the portion which has been changed, it does at least alert the participant to the fact that a change has been made.
How about inserting extra lines of music? The song, “When I was lost” by Kate and Miles Simmonds is a great blues-Gospel style song with a clap-along beat. But it also has a bridge that in my opinion is almost unsingably vague (even though repetitive) for most congregations. In our church we added some lines and gave it a more recognisable, singable shape. I don’t know what the authors think as I haven’t been able to let them know.
In the case of “Fall” by Nicki Rogers, we also have our own way of singing it. Before taking it to a conference, I did contact the author, who was happy with the variations as long as it wasn’t recorded like that (for which we would need to go through through proper legal channels)
So how about Hallelujah?
I think this “Christmas” version is very good. There is nothing particularly striking about it, but there is nothing cringey about it either. It is a decent hymn lyric that fits a fantastic tune. The tune was released to the world by its writer, and it’s widely loved. Yet the original poetic words are hard to comprehend. It’s one of those songs in which people sing the verses in a fog of mystical unknowing and then bellow the chorus – which is the one word they really connect with. Leonard Cohen may decry the “dumbing down” of his poetry – for the Christmas version certainly lacks the literary depth of the original. Yet it will enable thousands of people to take hold of a great tune and really own it for themselves.
That this Christmas version of Hallelujah completely changes the meaning and intent of the original is in no doubt. But I think that’s the risk you take in releasing a creation to the wider community.
What do you think?