Songwriting: When NOT to use a hymn bridge

Southern Gospel songwriters and arrangers frequently pull a chorus from a familiar hymn as a song bridge. Sometimes the songwriter puts it on the original demo; other times, the arranger adds it. The hymn usually shares a title word with the new song and sometimes shares the basic concept.

When should we use a hymn bridge?

Use it when it works musically and adds to or completes the story being told. A perfect example is the hymn bridge of “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow” in the Collingsworth’s recent radio hit “Fear Not Tomorrow” (discussed here and here).

But when should we not use a hymn bridge?

  1. When it doesn’t work musically. Several hymn bridges come to mind with awkward transitions from 4/4 to 3/4 or 6/8 time. If it doesn’t work musically, don’t do it.
  2. When it doesn’t work lyrically. Even if the song title shares a word with the title of your song, that doesn’t mean it adds anything to the story you are telling.
  3. When it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the song. Let’s illustrate this with two songs that are actually quite good on their own merits. The Ruppes’ “Under His Wings” is highlighted by an appearance by the hymn of the same name. Casual fans have been known to express surprise that the “The Holy City” excerpt from the Hoppers’ “Jerusalem” actually originates from a separate song; one friend exclaimed, “Why, that’s the best part of the song!” As with these two exceptions, this rule of thumb can be broken, sometimes with excellent results—but at least recognize your risks!

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22 Letters to the Editor

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  1. The first times I remember hearing it used was on Gold City’s “Calvary Came Through” and the Martins’ “Grace”. Both were well done. There have been other good ones including the ones you listed. I also like the Perrys’ “If You Knew Him”. Other times though, it gets annoying because it seems like everyone was doing it, and it became obligatory. Perhaps the best ones include those you don’t expect, but are well done once you hear them.

    • I actually heard much earlier than that. One being “He Arose” on “There Rose A Lamb” however that one flowed so well. The one on “Calvary Came Through” was a nice touch, but didn’t connect quite as well lyrically (although it did complement the message).

  2. As far as I know, there is no excerpt from the song “City of Gold,” in the Hoppers’ “Jerusalem.” There is an excerpt from an old hymn called “The Holy City.” There is a song, not a hymn, called “City of Gold,” but it is not featured in the Hoppers’ version of “Jerusalem.”

    • Ah – I guess I remembered the title wrong. It is sometimes called “City of Gold,” though, I do believe. But I believe that “The Holy City” is the more formal title.

      • It is “:The Holy City”

  3. I think that the use of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” works well for Soul’d Out’s “Who Is This Man.” Since the whole song is centered around “the name,” first with questions (“Who is this man who…”) then answering (“His name is…”) it’s appropriate lyrically.

    It works musically too. The transition doesn’t feel awkward to me, rhythmically speaking. They mesh well.

  4. That’s odd. I have never heard it called “City of Gold,” especially since the word “gold” is not in the song once, from what I recall. Go figure. Maybe that’s a blog for another day. Song titles that don’t match the lyrics, or a song that is titled one phrase, when there are more prominent words in the song. Sort of like the McKamey’s “Vision of Heaven.” If you weren’t familiar with the group and their body of work, one may think the song is called “Walked On A Little Farther,” because they say that phrase more than the title phrase, which is said only once at the beginning of the song. Ahh, but I digress…

    • Very interesting line of thought – I’ve pondered the same thing myself before. Certainly “The Holy City” is the more common title.

      The Daywind soundtrack for the song was labeled “Jerusalem.” I bought a cassette on clearance thinking it was the Hoppers song, when in fact it was the hymn. They may have renamed it “The Holy City” since.

  5. Well, honestly, I think it has been called by both “The Holy City,” it’s formal name, and by “Jerusalem,” which totally makes sense if you have heard the song and the chorus. That’s what I’m talking about. That hymn should really be called “Jerusalem,” by most people’s line of thinking. Because the phrase “the Holy city” is actually only in the song once or twice that I recall.

    • You know, I’m thinking I had a major mental blooper this morning, and Jerusalem is indeed the alternate title I’ve heard the most – even if I have possibly heard “City of Gold” used from time. 😳 Sorry!

      • The title is “The Holy City,” but I wouldn’t classify it as a hymn. I’ve never heard it sung by a congregation.

  6. Well, you’re allowed one mental blooper per day. So, you’re all used up for this day. 🙂 Now if it were me and I had used up my mental bloopers before lunch, I’d just have to go home and go to bed, because that would be the only way I’d be assured to not get into any trouble! LOL!

    • Actually, I’ve already used up two, and the other was bigger (see the other post today!)

      • Well, in that case, you’ve used up today’s and tomorrow’s…then there’s the day’s penalty for using more than one mental blooper per day. I guess we’ll see you on Saturday! Happy New Year! 🙂

      • :brainstorm:

        How about I count it as yesterday’s blooper! 🙂

  7. It’s done so often now that it’s become a lazy way to make a song connect with a listener.

    When “Under His Wings” came out, it had been done before, but it wasn’t being done so often back then.

    Rule of thumb…
    If it’s somewhat of a gimmick or an easy out AND it’s being done often, come up with another gimmick or use one that isn’t done so frequently.

    A song released today with a hymn bridge doesn’t impress me nearly as much as “Under His Wings” did the first time I heard it.

  8. The Perrys did #3 back in 2006 with the song, “He Will Hide Me.” The song could have easily stood in its own merits and possibly would have performed better at radio if “He Hideth My Soul” hadn’t been included.

    I, like several others, also didn’t find “The Holy City” & “Jerusalem” to be 2 different tunes until I came across a YouTube video of Larry Ford singing “The Holy City.” Once I recognized the difference, I lost my taste for the Hoppers’ song b/c the other was actually what made it sound outstanding in the first place.

    • Ah Andrew, your momma could have told the difference for you. “Holy City” is an oldie. 😉

      • Regrettably, not all mothers—even among those who are Christians now—grew up around church music all their lives, so not all mothers know the song.

  9. Just found this in my A Word A Day subscription, and thought it fit here:

    “An effective encore doesn’t risk becoming an empty beau geste; it is an emotional p.s. somehow relating to the mood of the written program.”
    Peter Dobrin; Applauding the Orchestra for Offering Encores; The Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania); Jan 15, 2011.

  10. Or tomorrow’s blooper! Interesting info, Daniel! I’d like to know more about songwriting. I use to do, and still do, occasionally. Why is Lari’s bridge incorrect? I’ve not heard the song your referring to. Hope you all have a pleasant, cool weekend!

    • Incorrect is probably too strong a word, but the one I was discussing in this morning’s review doesn’t flow smoothly musically, and there doesn’t seem to be a particularly obvious connection between the two lyrics, either.