The Art of the Second

Seconds are typically players who do not play melody, but back up the melody instruments with chords and/or rhythm parts. For Missouri styles, basic backup usually entails a guitar, a piano, or an organ (pump or electric). In southern Missouri, a five-string banjo is also often considered an essential, while north of the Missouri River, it’s a less common addition. Other instruments are used as additions as well, including bass, mandolin, tenor banjo, and more unusual choices like steel guitar, piano accordion, or cello.

Bob Walters, second from left, poses with a group of musicians including Bob Christeson (standing behind his melodeon). R.P. Christeson collection photo.

Bob Walters, second from left, poses with a group of musicians including Bob Christeson (standing behind his melodeon). R.P. Christeson collection photo.

While backup players don’t always get all the glory, they do get the appreciation of the fiddlers and dancers who rely on their rhythm and their ability to shape the tune. A talented second can make a bad fiddler sound good and a middling fiddler sound great. More importantly, a poor second can make a wonderful fiddler sound poor.  An experienced backup with great rhythm is a player who’s always in demand.

A commonality that nearly all the great Missouri seconds share is a deep knowledge of the tunes themselves.  This is important in part because the choices of the rhythm player shape the sound of the tune, just as a melody player’s do.  The second can either settle the sound into the region or tradition, or break it out. This is something neo-trad bands like the Chieftains or the Pogues often play with on purpose–the melody may be traditional, and played straight-up, while the backup could sound more appropriate at a rock concert. The tension is purposeful and desired. But in a more traditional setting, there are instances when dissonance between a second from one region or style and a fiddler from another, intentional or not, can cause unhappiness on both sides, because the tune simply sounds different or “wrong” to one player or the other (or dancers, audiences, or contest judges) with different backup choices.

For instance, while central Missouri tunes are more influenced by the African-American and German communities, Ozark melodies are more influenced by their neighbors to the south and west, in Oklahoma and Texas, and this can sometimes be heard in their chord choices. Ozarkers tend to use the vi (six) minor as a substitution for the IV, giving a haunted, plaintive sound to tunes that would be played with straight “Missouri chords” further north. Similarly,  Missouri Valley backup players will often use the ii (two) minor as a transition between IV and V, particularly in waltzes, polkas and schottisches, a habit borrowed, perhaps, from Scandinavian-Americans in the neighborhood.  The more incremental transition gives a smoother, more measured sound.

Seconding not only provides rhythm, but the context that makes the tune sound whole.

For these and many other reasons, though formal “bands” are unusual, traditional fiddlers often choose to play consistently with one backup player or set of players, often close friends or family members who know their tunes, style and preferences. Below are sketches of some Missouri fiddlers’ remarkable backup players. More will be added as we get time–if there’s someone you’d like to tell us about, please get in touch!