Bridges and the vanishing Final Verse

Today, virtually every Southern Gospel song needs a bridge to get cut.

But back in the dayโ€”through the 1970s or soโ€”Southern Gospel songwriting still fell solidly within the hymnwriting tradition, where a rousing final verse was the capstone to a great song. The last verse filled the conceptual territory now held by the bridge.

Somewhere about that time, Southern Gospel songwriters took a cue from contemporary music and incorporated bridges. Here’s a little secret: Many bridges follow a simple formula. You take a lyric the length of a full or half verse, set the melody a third interval above the melody of the verses, and perhaps toss in a bonus chord transition. Then you transpose either to the next key up, or up a fourth or fifth interval if you’re writing for a group.

It’s not that I’m bashing bridges. They can be effective if they’re not over-used. Compare a bridge to your favorite type of sandwich. You enjoy it several times a week, but five or six days of the week, every week, is too much.

How did we get to where bridges replaced the final verse?

And should the final verse make a comeback?

(Note. To those who dislike puns, give me some credit. This post nearly ran with the title Bridges versus Verses.)

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36 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. Every co-writer I’ve written with (had the pleasure of writing with some great names) has had the same view when it comes to writing a bridge: Only write a bridge if it’s ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.

    Never heard “have to write a bridge to get the song cut.” Interesting…

    • Hard to be specific – but I’ve always been a fan of songs (probably not written this way) that start with the chorus… This is probably just the way certain groups have staged a song. And when this is done – you’ll often hear the verses together – then perhaps a bridge and then the chorus…

  2. A bridge can make a song, if it’s done just right, but … a lot of them aren’t. I have to agree with some discussions I saw once before that weaving in a hymn is overused. I mean, I really like it, but not on every song!

    A pet peeve of mine is that a bridge makes a song basically useless for me to use it myself in church (as a “special”). I just don’t do that style.

    Another pet peeve is how songs never go past two verses today; a lot of older ones had more – I like three. However, that’s wandering off-topic!

    • No, I think that discussion is germane. Cutting down to two verses is part of what the original post was discussing. (And I agree.)

      • The only thing about 3 verses, is the length of the song. Seems like all songs are at least 4 minutes long now. In radio we would like some shorter songs along the way.

      • But:

        Does a third verse really make a song that much longer than two verses and a bridge?

  3. Now, what I am about to say has been used effectively and I like it sometimes, but it is done too often and often to get people’s affection for the old songs to move over to the new song. What I am talking about is using a snippet of a hymn or other song, in an original song. The first time I remember it done was on Gold City’s “Calvary Came Through” (I Will Glory In the Cross) That was cool. The Perry’s using part of “He Lives” in “If You Knew Him” was cool too. There are many others in between. I like it used sparingly or when it has a reason. What I don’t so much like is how about everybody and their brother seemed to do it and at times seemed to only do so hoping the affection and familiarity of the hymn would rub off.

  4. Sorry, I never saw Amy’s comment. GMTA. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have been on record for years in saying the same thing though. ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Hey – if you never saw it, how could you comment on it? ๐Ÿ˜›

      • It came to me physically or was read to me. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Let me rephrase that. I never saw it PRIOR to posting my FIRST reply. ๐Ÿ˜›

      • OK. I can understand that! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I agree with Chris, #1. I don’t think a song needs a bridge to get cut. I’ve been writing 20 years, and I have never heard that in a writing session, but I have heard what Chris said about writing a bridge when it was absolutely necessary. If I’m not mistaken, “Did I Mention” has no bridge, neither does “I Keep Praying,” “You Were Faithful Yesterday,” “That’s Why I Love Him So,” “The Empty Tomb Says It All,” or even my own “I’ll Pray For You.” All of these songs are Top 10 songs, and they don’t have bridges that I recall. I’m sure there are many more, both present and past…”Four Days Late,” “Midnght Cry,” I could go on and on.

    That said, I have had an artist or two ask for a bridge on a song. And to be honest, it’s sometimes hard to come up with something else to say when you feel you’ve said it all in the verses. And while I was never told “we won’t sing this unless there’s a bridge,” by virtue of being asked to add a bridge, it implies that the artist isn’t satisfied the way the song was originally presented to them–thus the implication that they probably aren’t going to do it unless there is a bridge.

    As for an arrangment including an old hymn, I think it’s just that–an arrangement. I don’t really think of it as a bridge, although it’s used as such. I have written songs that I thought would sound great with an old hymn tie-in (The Hoppers did one on Grace Will Always Be Greater and I was very happy with it–I thought it fit very well), but I don’t demo the songs like that, because I think that to put it on the demo could be a misconception to the artist that I don’t think the song is strong enough on its own. And I want my songs to stand on their own merit in the demo process. So, unless I feel really strongly about the hymn tie-in, I don’t put it on the demo. Just a few thoughts from a writer’s perspecitve.

    • Thanks for this Barbara! Always enjoyed your songs! Great to get an established writer’s feedback.

      My publisher has only asked me to consider writing a bridge once. They were pitching a song I wrote to print and the bridge I had was – you guessed it – another song (not a hymn – just a chorus of an old Andrae Crouch tune). Since they didn’t own the publishing on that tune, they couldn’t pitch it – so they asked me to come up with a new bridge since the song would be too short otherwise. I gladly obliged. I didn’t add the Crouch tune as the bridge because it needed a bridge – I just added it cause I felt like the songs worked really well together, and I still think that. If my group ever records the song, we’ll probably keep the original arrangement. It fits what we do better than the bridge I wrote (which is much more geared toward a choral arrangement).

      However, I’ve always been under the assumption that if you’re going to write a bridge it needs to add something new (most bridges just repeat what’s already been said) or does something musically that gives the song a nice lift – but even then you don’t have to do it with a bridge.

      Great post, BTW. I love talking about the craft of songwriting almost as much as I love actually writing songs. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Chris – Good point that most bridges just repeat what’s already been said.

        If I’d thought if it that way, I could have and probably should have made my post about the usefulness of bridges to a song vs. to the genre.

      • I love talking the craft, too, Chris! I got to thinking about it and I have written very few songs with bridges. I think it’s because I like to complete the thought process in the verses, so there really isn’t much left to say in the bridge when you feel like you’ve already said it all. And I also agree that with a great arrangement you can achieve that powerful lift/climax without a bridge. But I’ve been guilty of adding a song/hymn on rare occasion for the same reason you did–the songs just went together so well and I couldn’t resist the urge! LOL! I agree that overusing a hymn as a bridge can get annoying, but at the same time, as a writer I do realize that the artist has to arrange the songs for what fits them and for what they are needing on stage.

  6. I’ll be willing to concede that I over-estimated the importance of a bridge.

    I agree with several posters here that the technique of using hymns as a bridge bridges is quite over-used. It is brilliant on occasion, as in “Grace Will Always Be Greater” or “Jerusalem,” but Barbara, you captured if perfectly: If it’s overused, it leads an observer to think that the arranger or artist thought the song wasn’t strong enough to stand on its own.

  7. I will also say that there are several songs that come to mind with three verses that end up only being recorded with two. “I Believe In A Hill Called Mount Calvary” is one such song. It has a wonderful first verse that we never hear anymore. When I first heard the song years ago by Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters, they recorded the first and third verses of the song. Gaither Vocal Band’s version has the second and third verses. At times I’ve also heard “Because He Lives” done by the Gaithers with just the second and third verses. And if I’m not mistaken, “Beulah Land,” “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” and “I’m Standing on the Solid Rock” also have seldom-heard third verses.

    So to answer your question: should the third/final verse make a comeback? I would say not necessarily, not if it doesn’t add real value or depth to the song and certainly not if artists aren’t going to sing the third verse even if you write it. But as a writer, I feel my job is to tell a story and convey a message, hopefully in a fresh way and with a unique melody, with each song–whether it’s done in one verse, two, or three, or a verse or two with a bridge or without.

    • That’s certainly fair enough. Ultimately, the idea is to do whatever is best for the song.

      On “I Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary” – are you talking about the verse that starts, “There are things as we travel this earth’s shifting sands”? A beautiful lyric indeed.

      • You are absolutely right, Daniel! It’s an awesome lyric. I believe the lyric is close to the following: “There are things as we travel this earth’s shifting sands that transcend all the reason of man, but the things that matter the most in this world, they can never be held in our hand.” Something to that effect. A brilliant lyric, if you ask me, but I know the song could get a bit long if they sang all three verses. I do find it interesting that the actual writers of that song–the Gaithers (and Doug Oldham) are the ones that actually dropped that first verse. And I have heard them sing “Because He Lives” without the first verse, too. As a writer, that’s interesting to me that they’d be the ones to shorten their own song.

      • I think that’s precisely the lyric, actually.

        I understand why they sing verses 2 and 3 of Because He Lives. I would contend that they started writing one song and ended up with another by the time they were done.

        They started with “How sweet to hold our newborn baby” – unlike several hymnals, which have tried to broaden the verse by changing “our” to “a.”

        Then there’s verse 2, a broad statement of faith, “God sent His son / They called Him Jesus.”

        And then verse 3 is a tad more personal, but still fairly broad: “And then one day I’ll cross that river / I’ll fight life’s final war with pain.”

        So, probably to their surprise, what started out as an intensely personal song broadened into this grand statement of faith. And it was verses 2 and 3, the grand statement of faith part, that really caught on.

      • Yeah, I always thought Verse 1 was Bill and Gloria’s verse, and verses 2 and 3 were for the rest of us to sing.

      • What a great way of putting it!

      • I’ve known a few people who had verse 1 at baby dedications. Our pastor’s teenage daughter actually sang it as a special a little while ago, and I liked it … it’s quite a message of hope for this age.

        But it is a little incongruous with the rest of the song.

      • I agree that it is.

        This song would have to be the greatest classic out there that just doesn’t fit together!

      • In all of my hymnals, the actual 1st verse is listed as the 2nd verse (how sweet to hold…)

      • Mine, too – and it just doesn’t fit there!

  8. The first time I heard Guy Penrod, he did “The Old Rugged Cross Made The Difference”. When he started singing verse 2, which always got left out, I thought “I don’t care how long his hair is, he just won me over!”

    I’m not going to start on how overdone using a hymn or old song as a bridge or tag is. It was cute the first 5,437 times, but now somebody really needs to put a moratorium on it.

  9. Although I do agree with both statements–that using hymns as bridges is both appropriate in some cases, yet also overused–in my opinion, one of the most effective uses of a hymn as a bridge would have to be the use of the chorus of “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow” during the Collingsworth Family’s “Fear Not Tomorrow.”

    It’s remarkable in that it fits so well that the first time I heard it, I almost expected it; however, it’s done in such a way–and I believe that the key change adds much to this–that it really does make the song. Chalk it up to the brilliance of Wayne Haun.

  10. One place where I like it less is where I expect it! I like an arrangement to surprise me. Sometimes the first time I hear a song, I’ll “know what that rhyme is going to be,” and know how they’re going to arrange that, and whatever hymn they patched into it was so predictable … So what makes them think it was worth my while to even hear the song?

    One of the tiny, yet perfect, strokes of producing genius (IMO) was when L5 repeated “Won’t it be wonderful” four times, not three, at the end of the song. Any of us could have and would have done it three times, but that little element of surprise, when you thought it was done and they let you enjoy it one more time, made the song for me. Of course you can’t be perfectly original and new on every single song, but please don’t be perfectly predictable either. And some bridges, especially when it’s any old hymn that happens to have the same wording, are becoming very predictable.

    (Note: I haven’t even heard the Collingsworth song mentioned above, so I’m not referring to that at all. In fact, till I reread it just now, I thought he was just wishing that they had used the song. Some times you expect it because it would be the perfectly right thing to do!)

  11. Sort of related, I loved the first time I heard the alternate chord on the last chord of Ricky Scagg’s song “Somebody’s Prayin'” Actually, I still love it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Hey, Daniel, great discussion on this topic. I like the rousing final verse that you mentioned in the original post, although I’m not opposed to a well-created bridge or the use of an old hymn as a bridge as long as it’s not over-used. But if every song has that treatment it gets old. It’s sort of like the fake ending. It seems like it’s way over-used. Seems like this may have been discussed on an earlier thread about fake endings versus an encore of the song. I think what it comes down to is that no one element should be over-used. I’m all for strong songs standing for themselves, and I think on occasion an interesting arrangement element is great, but not on every songs.

  13. The verse “how sweet to hold” was written after Benjamin Gaither’s birth. Bill had gone through a depression for months and unable to write. A “friend” had wanted Bill to go into a business arrangement with him. Bill didn’t think it was wise, and said no. The friend accused him of not really believing the message and only being in the gospel biz for the money. When Benjamin was born, Bill was finally able to write, but wasn’t totally past the depression if I remember correctly. When it was first said, Bill questioned himself and was tempted to give up the ministry I believe. This was told in one or both of his autobiographies (I Almost Missed the Sunset and It’s More Than the Music.

  14. Speaking of the Collingsworth Family, their “Oh the Thought that Jesus Loves Me” song on their latest CD has no bridge.

    • …and as a matter of fact, that song’s my favorite off of the project!

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion. The Lord gave me the music and lyrics to “Fear Not Tomorrow” in the late 1960’s…(without a bridge), but when I first heard The Collingsworth ladies singing Wayne Haun’s majestic arrangement…(with the bridge)…WOW!!!
    What a perfect complement and so “in sync” with the flow of the song’s message! As a songwriter, I appreciated the heart and artistic intent of the arranger to add this bridge in such a tasteful manner.

    • Carolyn,

      Great to hear from you! I agree – that arrangement works, and works well.